Almaty-Transit  by Dana Mazur

This is my book from Kazakhstan for the Read The World challenge, and it is, unusually, contemporary literary fiction (from 2010!). Which would be even more unusual if it had actually been translated from Kazakh or Russian, but it’s a novel in English by a Kazakh immigrant to the US. And the action moves between Los Angeles — where Aidar, a Kazakh man, lives with his American musician wife and son — and Almaty where his mother lives.

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[SPOILER ALERT, I guess; the event mentioned happens pretty early in the book, but if you don’t want to know the result, look away now]

The full title of the book is Almaty-Transit — A Ghost Story, and most of the action happens after the death of Aidar, when his spirit finds itself back home in Kazakhstan, but wanting to find some way to help his wife and child back in the States. It’s hard to give any more detail without getting even more spoilery, but I would say that for much of the book the supernatural part is handled well, and it seems like an extension of a character-driven narrative, rather than wacky stuff happening just to try and make the book more interesting. By the end, as the supernatural elements got more elaborate and more gothic fairy-tale in tone, I was starting to get a bit impatient with it, but it wasn’t enough to spoil the book for me.

So, yeah, on the whole I enjoyed this, I thought it was well-written and the characters were engaging, even though the thing which is most distinctive about it — the supernatural side of the story — was in some ways the least appealing part, for me.

»The photo Almaty City is © Vladimir Yaitskiy and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Read The World challenge: status report, 2014

I’ve only ticked off nine new countries in the last twelve months. This means that the finish-line has receded even further into the future, but hey-ho.

Doña Bárbara by Rómulo Gallegos

An interesting fact about Rómulo Gallegos: he was the first democratically elected president of Venezuela, in 1948 (although only for a few months before losing power to a coup d’état). He was a writer before he was a politician; Doña Bárbara was published in 1929. It is, of course, my book from Venezuela for the Read The World challenge.

I didn’t choose it because the author was president of Venezuela. I was more attracted by the fact that it has been made into a movie twice and a telenovela three times. And that suggests a novel with a good story to tell.

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It is indeed a rollicking yarn, full of love, lust, jealousy, dancing, cattle rustling, chicanery, revenge, murder, sweeping landscapes, colourful birds, and manly men riding across the plains. The portrayal of women is slightly more problematic, in that there are only two major female characters, and one is pure, virginal, innocent, passive and ineffectual, while the other — the eponymous Doña Bàrbara — is manipulative, ruthless, corrupt, witchy, and uses sex as a weapon.

To be fair, Doña Bàrbara is a terrific character, a sort of cowboy Lady Macbeth. Or Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the witches rolled into one. And in best superhero fashion, she is given a backstory of childhood trauma to account for her villainy. It’s just the contrast with the young Marisela which implies a rather narrow role for what a good woman can be like.

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Despite Gallegos’s later career, this didn’t strike me as a particularly political novel in the same way as, for example, a lot of the post-colonial fiction I’ve been reading. Although you can see how it could be a part of a developing Venezuelan nationalism, because it is very much a novel about a place and a culture; the plains and the plainsmen who raise cattle there. I could see it forming part of a Venezuelan identity, rather as other cowboys did in the US.

However, the Wikipedia entry for Doña Bàrbara notes that ‘it was because of the book’s criticisms of the regime of longtime dictator Juan Vicente Gómez that [Gallegos] was forced to flee the country’. So I obviously missed some nuances. I guess the portrayal of political corruption — even though mainly at the local level in the book — is the kind of thing that dictators get annoyed by. They’re a notoriously thin-skinned bunch.

Anyway, I enjoyed it. And despite the tone of my comments, not just as a slightly melodramatic yarn — although that was enjoyable — but as a literary novel. It has an evocative sense of place, atmospheric set pieces, strong characters. Good stuff.

» I’ve actually been to the llanos of Venezuela; I was there looking for birds. ‘Scarlet Ibis | Corocoras rojas (Eudocimus ruber)’ is © Fernando Flores and used under a CC by-sa licence.

The Forlorn Adventure by Amir Falique

This is my book from Brunei for the Read The World challenge. Brunei is one of the countries which is particularly difficult to find books from; so when I found this self-published ‘science fiction thriller’ on Amazon I snapped it up.

It is the story of A’jon, a man chosen to be Brunei’s first astronaut because of his expertise in cryptography. His mission is caught up in Dramatic Events, and [SPOILER ALERT, I guess], he is put in suspended animation for 500 years, floating in space, before being revived and brought back to earth where his cryptographic expertise once more gets him involved in Dramatic Events and [even more SPOILERY] he saves the world.

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Sadly it’s not very good; it’s the kind of book that makes people suspicious of self-publishing. This is a sample of the clunky prose and dialogue:

A’jon grabbed his fork and drove it into the middle of the plate. He twirled the fork several times until he grabbed the right amount, and then lifted it without a strand hanging and put it in his mouth. He was careful to not drop any of the sauce and get his new clothes dirty. His tongue reacted instantly to the food. “Mmm, that’s delicious!” he said while chewing the first bite.

“Makes me proud to be an Asian. Pasta originated from China before it was brought to Italy. It’s amazing how the combination of water and wheat can form such remarkable dough. You can mold it into almost any shape you like — fusilli, tagliatelle, ziti, rice vermicelli.”

With each bite, A’jon wrapped as much of the cheesy sauce round his tongue as he could before the flavor disappeared.

I’m resisting the urge to really pull this book apart; because it’s a soft target, and also because its flaws are essentially innocuous. It’s not particularly annoying or offensive, it’s just badly written.

» The picture is of the teapot roundabout in Kuala Belait, Brunei. It is © Rachel Walker and used under a by-nc-sa licence.

Dante International by Sharon Kasanda

Dante International is my book from Namibia for the Read The World challenge.

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A few months ago, I picked a detective novel for Malaysia because I thought it would make a good change to read newly released genre fiction rather than decades-old literary stuff. This is what I said about that book:

21 Immortals was a silly choice, really. Not because of the book itself, which is fine I guess, but because I have never understood the appeal of crime fiction (or indeed the even more depressing genre, ‘true crime’). I’m just not very interested in the grisly murders themselves or the police procedural/CSI stuff. The Malaysian setting gave it some novelty value, but otherwise it was a pretty standard example of the genre and so it largely left me cold.

Apparently I do not learn from my mistakes.

Dante International is not actually a detective novel — the central character is not a sleuth — but it is a crime novel/thriller; women are being murdered in Windhoek and suspicion falls on their boss, an attractive, sexually incontinent self-made businessman called Dante Dumeno.

It was readable enough, I guess, but not really my kind of thing. And I had some problems with the portrayal of Dante, who is a manipulative bullying sexual predator… but apparently we’re supposed to find that attractive in a bad-boy sort of way?

» The photo is Onymacris marginipennis (Breme, 1840), © Udo Schmidt and used under a CC by-sa licence. It’s a beetle from Namibia.

Bird of the Year 2013

Notable birds from last year: Whitethroat was a new one for the garden list; a fine male Red-backed Shrike at Barnes WWT was a real treat (and incidentally a London tick).

A Glossy Ibis was the first I’d seen in Britain although I didn’t get great views of it.

Bonaparte’s Gull — an American species — was a first for me, although it was a distant bird in winter plumage that had to be pointed out to me, so it was nice but not as exciting as it could be.

I picked up the two ‘other buzzards’ this year: Rough-legged Buzzard, which was a new species for me, but came with just enough niggling doubt that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I might have. Firstly because it was in May, which is pretty late for RLB, although by no means ridiculous. And also because I had good but brief views, which gave me time to note down enough key ID features to count it as RLB but not quite all the details I would have wanted, ideally, to tick a new species. In this case, I noted the wing and tail pattern carefully but didn’t make a mental note of any markings on the chest and belly… and it’s amazing how, even a few seconds after seeing something, if you didn’t consciously pick out a relevant detail, there’s no way you can recover it from memory. Birdwatching really undermines your faith in the idea of eye-witness testimony.

The other other buzzard, by contrast, was the ideal sighting. It was a Honey Buzzard which was spooked up into the air by a passing Common Buzzard, so the two of them were flying around together for a minute or so, giving me the chance to make a direct comparison of size, shape, and behaviour; and gratifyingly, my mental notes matched up pretty perfectly with the ID features listed in the book. Very satisfying. And that was a British tick for me, although I have seen Honey Buzzard before in France.

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But my bird of the year for 2013 was Spotted Crake; a new species for me, an attractive bird, and one which showed well — after a long and patient wait for it to show itself. I’ve spent a lot of time staring into ditches over the years, and it doesn’t always pay off; but this time it did.

» That’s not my photo, sadly. It is © Noel Reynolds and used under a CC-by licence. You can see a photo of the actual individual bird I saw at this post, if you want, but I needed a CC-licensed photo.

Garlicky herby creamed aubergine

A way of cooking aubergines I invented — although it’s pretty similar to various middle-eastern dishes that already exist.

This recipe starts by roasting and mashing three large aubergines (eggplants). So if you’ve never done that: basically just chuck the whole aubergines into a hot oven for maybe 45 minutes. They visibly collapse in on themselves. Scoop out the cooked interior and chop it in a colander to drain off some liquid, then mash it up with a fork or something.

That’s the base of the dish.

I fried three cloves of crushed garlic and a finely chopped shallot — you don’t have to cook them too hard, you just don’t want them to be raw — and mixed that in with the aubergine purée, plus a few spoonfuls of yoghurt and a bit of salt. Then heated it through, and stirred in chopped parsley, coriander (cilantro) and chives — perhaps a handful of each. And it was very nice.

My new vegetarian lasagne recipe

I don’t see veggie lasagne on menus as much as I used to — the chefs getting more sophisticated with their vegetarian options, I guess — but it used to be an absolute staple.

I was never very keen on it, though: the most common recipe was made with roasted vegetables, and to my taste it was just too sweet. It didn’t have the rich, savoury, earthy quality of a good meat lasagne. Too much treble, not enough bass. I have the same problem with a lot of meat lasagnes, incidentally: too sweet and tomatoey.

So for ages I’ve had the idea at the back of my head to try and come up with a better recipe for a vegetarian lasagne. The starting point was mushrooms, which are an obvious way of getting that savoury, umami, ‘meaty’ quality. Particularly if you’re generous with the dried porcini.

And the other thing I discovered recently was that spinach works surprisingly well in a tomato sauce or a meat sauce. I’m not keen on cooked spinach on its own, but if you chop it and incorporate it into a tomato sauce or a meat sauce, it really adds something.

So that’s the basic concept: a mushroom, tomato and spinach sauce to replace the meat part of the lasagne; layered with pasta sheets, bechamel and cheese in the normal way. And it was really nice. It had some sweetness, but not too much, and loads of rich savoury flavour.

The specifics were as follows:

Pour boiling water over some dried porcini and leave to soak for an hour (I used maybe 15g of porcini in a cup or two of water), then squeeze them out and save the soaking water.

Fry a couple of finely shopped shallots in a saucepan with chopped fresh thyme and rosemary for a few minutes.

Add chopped fresh mushrooms (I think it was a 300g box?), the chopped porcini, and a couple of cloves of chopped garlic, and cook them down a bit.

Add a tin of tomatoes, the porcini soaking water, and half a glass of red wine. Simmer away for maybe 45 minutes to thicken it and give the flavours a chance to meld together.

Cook the spinach (I got a couple of bags of pre-washed supermarket spinach and cooked them in the microwave), drain it, chop it, and mix into the sauce.

And then you’re ready to layer it up with the white sauce and the pasta and stick it in the oven.

Bird of the Year 2013: best performances in a supporting role

Even later than usual, but I thought I should at least get the first post out in time for the Oscars.

Best Plant

I spent quite a lot of time last year looking at flowers and butterflies. The names alone are a joy: sainfoin, silverweed, sanicle, harebell, yellow rattle, round-headed rampion, devil’s bit scabious, horseshoe vetch.

I saw at least eight orchid species: fragrant, common-spotted, pyramidal, and man orchid; twayblade, white helleborine, green-flowered helleborine (though not fully open, sadly), and tiny but charming, Autumn Lady’s Tresses:

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There were actually hundreds of them at Rye Harbour, and I tried to get a picture with a cluster, but my iPhone’s autofocus just couldn’t cope.

It was nice to see sundew for the first time in a while; there’s something deeply fascinating about carnivorous plants:

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And perhaps the instinct to choose something a bit rare or unusual is a bad one; for sheer pleasure, it’s hard to beat the green glow of the sun shining through young beech leaves, or a sweep of bright gold coconut-smelling gorse flowers.

But my stand-out plant of the year is a curious flower called Grass Vetchling, one I’d never heard of before I saw it. What’s fascinating about it is that it really does look incredibly like a piece of grass… except with a gorgeous little magenta flower on it.

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That photo is © –Tico– and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. You can get a clearer idea of just how much the plant looks like grass from the photo is this blog post (click for a larger version). It almost looks like an example of bio-mimicry, but it’s hard to imagine the evolutionary advantage of looking like grass.

Best Insect

Last summer I made a particular effort to look for butterflies, sometimes with my father, who is keen on them; specifically, I made it a bit of a project for us to see a Purple Emperor,  the UK’s most glamorous butterfly. And after a slightly miserable wet spring, the summer was properly hot and it turned out to be a particularly good year for butterflies. There were some amazing numbers of Purple Emperor being seen in a wood in Northamptonshire, so we made the pilgrimage up there, and sure enough we saw dozens in flight and several sitting on the ground flashing their purple at us.

I also got several other firsts this year: amazing iridescent Adonis Blues, in their hundredson Malling Down although, it being a cool day, all sitting on the ground; the much less spectacular Silver-studded Blue in huge numbers on Chobham Common, Brown Argus, Silver-spotted Skipper and Dark Green Fritillary, plus Grayling and Wall, which I’m sure I’ve seen before but possible not in the UK. It was also a good year for Clouded Yellow, and I saw quite a few of those fluttering around the north Kent saltmarshes. In total, I saw 35 species of butterfly in the UK last year, which is surely a personal record.

Also a few non-butterfly insects of note: the amazing iridescent green Rose Chafer beetle and its less exciting relative the Garden Chafer; a couple of longhorn beetles, Rutpela maculata and Agapanthia villosoviridescens, and a longhorn moth, Adela croesella. The striking Golden-ringed Dragonfly, and the Ruddy Darter, which I’ve no doubt seen before but now know how to distinguish from its commoner relatives. And best of all, the fabulous Beautiful Demoiselle.

It involved a long trip to a slightly dingy bit of woodland after several failed attempts elsewhere, and was therefore just a tiny bit more stressful than butterfly-hunting should be, but I think I have to award Insect Of The Year to Purple Emperor. Because it really was the fulfilment of a lifetime ambition. For me and my father.

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The photo is © Paul Ritchie and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Best Invertebrate (other)

I actually had a non-insect invertebrate as a target species last summer: the Wasp Spider. But despite several attempts, I couldn’t find one.

So the winner is the edible snail, Helix pomatia. And yes, it is the big fat one commonly eaten with garlic sauce. Known as Roman Snail, because it was introduced to the UK by the Romans — presumably as a foodstuff — and there are still a few in the south of England.

Best Reptile

I saw an adder briefly as it disappeared into a bush. So that was good.

Best Fish

Can’t think of anything for this category.

Best Amphibian

There was masses of toadspawn in the pond this year, and the toadlets were very cute, so I guess toad is the winner by default.

Best Mammal

Otters have made a comeback over the past few decades, but you never actually see them. But I was in the Lee Valley during the January cold spell, and I saw something walking over the ice, and for a moment I thought perhaps the extreme weather had forced one out into the open during the day… and of course it was an [introduced, American] mink. Still, it was an exciting moment and an attractive animal in its own right.

Best Ecosystem

Biodiversity is a marvellous concept burdened with a terrible bureaucratic name. It’s not difficult to explain intellectually, but people don’t have an instinctive emotional connection to it.

And it’s not always very obvious, even when you’re in the middle of it. Even in the most famously biodiverse habitat, tropical rainforest: a casual visitor walking through it will often be a bit disappointed, because what you mainly see is lots and lots of very similar-looking trees. The birds and butterflies and snakes and monkeys and frogs and beetles are all out there, but you often have to work a bit to find them.

But anyone can see the difference between a wildflower meadow and pasture which has been ‘improved’ by agriculture. The improved version is attractive enough: a thick pillow of lush green grass, unbroken by anything except perhaps the occasional hardy thistle. That deep vibrant green in spring is a joy to see after the grey of winter, and it seems so full of life; it has become our idea of what the English countryside should look like. But it’s all just grass. It has the ‘bio’ part — it’s producing a lot of biomass — but it’s completely lacking in diversity.

Whereas the unimproved meadow is immediately, obviously completely different. It will be covered in flowers, pink ones, white ones, yellow, blue; some hugging close to the ground, others holding their blooms up above the grass, flowers in spikes and disks and whorls. And crawling and buzzing and fluttering, there will be caterpillars, hoverflies, beetles, wasps, and most obviously, butterflies. And you don’t need to be able to identify any of them: you can see the variety. Anyone can see the stark contrast between the lush but boring improved pasture and the messy, rich, complicated wildflower meadow.

And if you do learn to identify the flowers and insects, the diversity becomes even more apparent, because the mix will vary from meadow to meadow, depending on the soil, the exposure, the amount of grazing and the time of year.

A green sweep of ‘improved’ pasture can make for a beautiful landscape, but the wildflower meadow invites you to stop and pay attention to your immediate surroundings, to take pleasure in the details. The harder you look, the more there is to see.