The Book Department

With Dr Alyson Hitch

This month we take a trip down the Amazon to meet the indigenous tribes that live along the Xingu river, find out the truth about foxes, and take a maths lesson with Adam Hart-Davis. We also find out why video games really aren’t as bad for us as we think, and plenty more besides…

Photos: Sue Cunningham


‘Spirit of the Amazon’ by Sue and Patrick Cunningham, Papadakis, £40

A life-changing journey, an exploration of the Amazon, a window into the world of the indigenous peoples of a place so far away and so different that it might as well be another plant. This is ‘Spirit of the Amazon’, the work of husband-and-wife, photographer and writer duo Sue and Patrick Cunningham, whose extra-ordinary pictorial and verbal adventures take us deep into the lives of the tribal peoples of the Xingu river region of the Amazon basin. At first glance it is an exotic world full of strange customs and even stranger outward appearances.

Sting with the elders of the Xingu people

But if we think about the indigenous people of the Xingu river no deeper than this, we’re in danger of missing the point because, as Sting says in his foreword to this superb book: they are people, just as we are people, and not simply exotic objects… we have an obligation to protect their land, their environment and their chosen way of life.”

The Amazon is under enormous environmental stress, a pressure that is encroaching into the homelands of its indigenous peoples and threatening their ancient way of life. And while the

Cunninghams have worked tirelessly to bring their plight to the world’s attention since the late 1980s, arguably the central event in their careers was their Heart of Brazil Expedition upon which much of this book is based. This expedition took them 2,500km along the entire Xingu river, travelling light and, despite potential dangers, unarmed, visiting 48 remote villages along the way. Spirit of the Amazon is the story of the people they met on their travels, their daily lives, their connection to the land and to the river and the constant threats to their existence. It is also an immensely valuable documentary of the rarely seen cultures and lifestyles of the Amazon.

Sue’s photography is stunning and almost certainly the most complete pictorial account of this part of the world in existence today. Through Patrick’s narratives we are given a clear-sighted understanding of what it means to be tribal people under threat, an explanation of the policies and political stances that threaten to impose materialism on them. He discusses their spiritual differences and makes a case for their increasing relevance and importance in the modern world. Above all, the words and images perfectly weave in and out of each other in a way that tells an inspiring tale of hope that also has a warning and a call to action at its heart. A beautiful and brilliant insight into the tribes of the Xingu.

‘The Accidental Dictionary’ by Paul Anthony Jones, Elliott & Thompson, £8.99, pb

These days we seem so preoccupied with inventing linguistically nonsensical words for our digital, social media age that we tend to forget that we already have plenty of perfectly good old ones that do perfectly well for communicating just about anything we want to say. But given that anything old was once new, it’s inevitable that many of the words we use today have shifted in their meaning as the decades or even centuries go by. This is the thrust of ‘The Accidental Dictionary’ by Paul Anthony Jones, who takes us on a tour of ‘the remarkable twists and turns of English words.’ And great fun it is too.

For those fed up with all the jargon in modern English – if you’re not sure what this is, your mobile phone contract is written entirely in it – then there’s no better place to start, because the word, which we can trace all the way back to the mediaeval English of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, once meant bird-song. It wasn’t until the 17th century that today’s meaning of speech filled with technical and otherwise baffling vocabulary came into being. Some will see this as a bit of a come-down for a once noble noun, while others will see it as a useful evolution. And the language is full of such examples says Jones, who tells us not only that busking once meant piracy, buxom was once obedient and a bimbo was a man, but why. So, if you ever find yourself frustrated with the fiasco (‘broken bottle’) that is our language today, and our fetish (‘talisman’) for creating new words, ‘The Accidental Dictionary’ is the perfect reminder that we’ve always messed about with the way we speak.

‘Fibonacci’s Rabbits’ by Adam Hart-Davis, Modern Books, £12.99, pb

You may not have heard of the 12th century mathematician Fibonacci, but it’s a safe bet you’ll know what a rabbit is. And that pretty much sums up Adam Hart-Davis’s new book on mathematics for the general reader, in which he takes complex aspects of our daily lives – such as telling the time – and explains how it all works in language that the non-specialist can understand. With rabbits for example, if you were to make a study of how they multiply over time (as Fibonacci did), you’ll discover a curious mathematical pattern emerging. This ‘golden ratio’ appears in almost everything, from art to architecture, from population growth models to the way plants grow. All this from studying rabbits.

Believing that this couldn’t be the only pleasant surprise in the field of maths, Hart-Davis set off to find more, and came up with a further 49 examples along roughly similar lines. We’re all used to the idea that if you put a monkey in a room with a typewriter it will eventually come up with the complete works of Shakespeare. What we’re talking about here is the mathematical concept of probability, the bottom line of which is that given enough time even the most unlikely outcome can occur. Of course, most mathematicians don’t seriously think that Curious George could actually write Hamlet, but the point is that it’s not impossible. We are all familiar with the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in, say, South America can cause a hurricane in China. But we also instinctively know that for most of the time it won’t. This is the mathematics of unpredictability in complex systems, where small changes can lead to (crucially) either negligible or chaotic effects. And on it goes, mind-bogglingly fascinating from start to finish. If you’re not interested in mathematics, then this might not be the book for you. Although, if you stick with it, you might just find that the subject you disliked so much at school is actually a brilliant way of looking at and explaining the world around you.

The Hidden World of the Fox’ by Adele Brand, William Collins, £12.99, hb

Whenever the British public happens to see a fox in the garden or even trotting nonchalantly along the street, you can guarantee that the viewers will split into two diametrically opposed camps. On the one hand there will be those that dismiss the fox as vermin encroaching on human habitat, while on the other there will be an outpouring of positive sentiment for our favourite woodland creature. The former will describe them as mangy and malnourished, while the latter will think of them as russet-hued, twinkle-eyed creatures of highly-evolved intelligence. Somewhere in between these prejudices there is the real fox, a creature that has been the obsession of ecologist Adele Brand since she was a child. After reading just the first few pages of ‘The Hidden World of the Fox’ you’ll inevitably end up thinking – whichever side of the fox fence you’re on – that most of what you thought you knew is wrong.

More than anything the fox, as Brand tells us, is a complex and misunderstood creature. Most of us think that they’re nocturnal, but they’re not. Cat lovers think of them as a constant danger, but the fox (that actually weighs less than a domestic moggy) is extremely unlikely to attack Tiddles for the blind-ingly obvious reason that cats are front-loaded with sharp claws and razor teeth. If we are to believe the tabloids (‘fear sells’), foxes habitually climb through windows in order to maim our children, and yet ‘fear of foxes is simply not supported by the cold, objective facts,’ and you don’t need to be a genius to reach the conclusion that Britain is under far greater threat from road traffic accidents and heart disease. We tend to think that they are taking over our urban environment, but there’s not much evidence to support that either, especially as foxes have inbuilt biological mechanisms that prevent population explosions. There’s so much more to Brand’s fabulous fox book. Heartily recommended.

‘Lost in a Good Game’ by Pete Etchells, Icon Books, £14.99, pb

It’s a fact of the digital world we live in that we are spending more and more time interacting with screens. It’s also a fact that media coverage of our increased ‘screen time’ – especially time taken playing video games – is overwhelmingly negative and alarmist. There is a broad consensus among newspaper journalists that video games are bad for us and are the root of everything wrong with the youth of today and society in general. In short, video games are a colossal waste of time that kids should be spending outside, they are violent and lacking in moral ballast, while isolating fragile youth from the bonds of friends and family. But is this really what’s going on? What lessons can we learn when we put aside the hysterical rantings of the redtop newspapers and examine unbiased scientific research? This is exactly the question Pete Etchells (who is Reader in Psychology and Science Communication at Bath Spa University) set out to answer in ‘Lost in a Good Game’. It won’t spoil the plot too much to say that after analysing all of the available data and research he reaches the conclusion that our worries are unfounded and that video games are in fact useful tools for living, playing and studying. But ‘Lost in a Good Game’ isn’t just a scientific investigation into why we play games and their effect on us. It’s also a personal and moving account of how, as a 14-year-old, the author turned to the world of games to help him cope with the death of his father. Myth-busting and insightful. Great stuff.

‘Britain and the Bomb’ by W J Nuttall, Whittles Publishing, £18.99, pb

Half a century ago Britain was at war. Not a conventional war in the sense of the first or second world wars, in which armies, navies and air forces entered into prolonged gladiatorial combat to establish advantage and ultimately victory. But a new type of war fought with threat posturing, escalation of technology potential and diplomatic strategy. The Cold War, with its ever-present risk of nuclear apocalypse was more like a political game of chess. Its endgame if it ever happened would put the slaughter and destruction of previous world wars in the shade.

‘Britain and the Bomb’ is W J Nuttall’s absorbing account of the technology and culture surrounding one often over-looked aspect of the Cold War – the nuclear strike bomber TSR2 that in April 1965 was cancelled by the Labour government. While TSR2 might have faded from our memories compared with, say, Trident in the 1980s, its cancellation was to have a critical impact on Britain’s approach to its nuclear deterrent programme. As Nuttall explains, TSR2 was ‘the most ambitious aviation project ever conceived by the British’. Its much-anticipated deployment would be vital to the nation’s aspirations and yet only one aircraft ever took to the skies and it only achieved supersonic speeds once. If we had continued with TSR2, we would have had a success on our hands the likes of which would have made Robert Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel proud. And yet scrapping TSR2 was nonetheless probably ‘a sensible decision in Cold War defence policy’, in which political reality needed to be prioritised over nationalism. A superb account of an overlooked aspect of Britain’s Cold War history.


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