Book review: ‘The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future’ by Fiona Reynolds

An enlightening journey through history’s many attempts to secure and protect what is beautiful in the world.

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Beauty is a complicated subject. We all know what it is, but as time goes by we become less comfortable with speaking about it, or so says author Fiona Reynolds in this stunning new publication from Oneworld.

Describing beauty of the natural world has become something sacred and very personal, where once it ran free within government documentation and legal literature, it is now replaced by more clinical attempts of ‘protecting biodiversity’ and ‘conserving habitats’. So much is the case that today, even while striving to protect natural beauty with climate change legislation and environmental protection orders, we do more than ever to ignore it.

Heeding the words of John Ruskin in the 19th century, Reynolds highlights the ever increasing drive for economic growth and desire for material possession in modern times. “Wherever I look of travel in England or abroad,” wrote Ruskin. “I see that men, wherever they can reach, destroy all beauty. They seem to have no other desire or hope but to have large house and to be able to move fast.” How much has changed since this time?

It reminds me of a recent news story about a real estate tycoon in the US who built the most expensive house to ever go on the market. The house is available for $250 million and comes complete with its own private cinema, massage parlour and luxury cars. What was the aim of this dwelling? To tap into the niche, super wealthy market of people willing to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a yacht, but who barely surpass $10 million when it comes to housing. A fantastic business venture if ever there was one – build a man a dream house and his friends will surely want one too – but it doesn’t do much to inspire hope in a future where consumerism isn’t everything.

Reynolds believes this state of economic affairs – where people strive for bigger and better possessions, and only things of monetary value have any real worth – makes it more difficult than ever to protect what matters, including the environment and our future.

In The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future Reynolds collects words and aspirations of figures past and present who all endeavoured to achieve one thing: protection of the Earth and conservation of its natural beauty. The book examines ideas about nature, farming and urbanisation, explores mountain sides, secluded woodlands and protected heather-rich moorland, and delves into romantic thoughts and war poetry. Beginning with the impassioned minds of friends behind the Kyrle Society of the 19th century, whose calls for environmental protection gave way to the modern National Trust, Reynolds shows how definitions of beauty have been rearranged and reconsidered throughout history, before becoming somewhat lost within the fast-paced consumerist lifestyles of modern day.

The Fight for Beauty is at once intriguing, fascinating and incredibly moving. What could serve as an interesting account of the importance of the countryside throughout history is, on a much deeper level, a fervent call-to-arms to protect what, once gone, is gone forever. For Reynolds at least, inspiration from the past and from nature itself could provide an alternative path forward from human development, one where beauty is not forgotten.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.

Dear Data – Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec

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When they first met at an arts festival, Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec realised that they had been living oddly parallel lives:. Both were residing in a foreign country – Giorgia had moved from her native Italy to New York and Stefanie, originally from Colorado, was living in London.  They were the same age were both only children and, most importantly, they were both obsessed by data.

Stefanie and Giorgia have spent their lives collecting and organising information from the world around them. As a child, Stefanie delighted in filling in scorecards with her father at baseball games, while Giorgia collected and organised anything she could get her hands on, from buttons to small stones. As they got older, they both realised that they were collecting data and went on into careers as visual designers, creating data illustrations.

From a chance visit at an arts festival, Stefanie and Giorgia decided to try and get to know each other by sharing data. Having only met once, Stefanie and Giorgia began exchanging postcard-sized letters that described what had happened to them each week, but instead of writing what had happened, they drew it. The resulting project spanned a year, 52 weeks and covered 52 themes, from smiling at strangers to smells and sensations. Each week, Stefanie and Giorgia would collect, collate and share data with one another, often containing information about the most private aspects of their lives such as touch,  envy and desire.

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Dear Data is an amalgamation of the project that unfolded from the chance meeting of two strangers who went on to become intimate friends, revealing oddly personal pictures of each woman’s life. Often, aspects of life that would not necessarily be revealed through the simple act of writing can be seen through data. By looking at each other’s infographics each week, Stefanie and Giorgia got to know each other, noticing themes and patterns in each other’s drawings. The resulting works tell a story about the person behind the data. We learn that Giorgia is a control freak, and Stefanie enjoys more than the occasional drink and apologises far too often.

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Dear Data will make you pause and think about what data can reveal about a person. It makes you realise that you don’t need an app to tell you anything new about yourself. Every one of us is a walking data collection, from the money in our bank account to the calories we consume in any given day. Each time we glance at the clock on our office wall, apologise, or take a walk, we are inadvertently adding to a huge data collection that is our lives. This book is a wonderful illustration of just how data-heavy the average person is. As a project, an exhibition and a book, Dear Data is fascinating, beautiful and a treat for the eyes and mind.

This review was first published on WordPress for E&T magazine

The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots – Beatrix Potter

It’s today! It’s today!

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I was unbelievably excited to wake up this morning to an email informing me that The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots would be waiting for me when I returned from work. Obviously I would have preferred to wait by the front door for the postman, but somehow I managed to get through the day at work. I then tore home, dived into the book and had it finished before supper time.

I’ve always been a huge Beatrix Potter fan. My childhood box set was always a prized possession of mine and was subject to more than one show-and-tell session back in primary school. The Tailor of Gloucester was always my favourite and I still love to pull the book out and watch the BBC adaption around Christmas time. If there is anything more magical than animals behaving like humans it is animals behaving like humans in the snow. Simpkins in his snow boots is one of my favourite images of all time.

When I heard there was a new book by Beatrix Potter being published I was over the moon. To think that the manuscript remained hidden for over 100 years, only to emerge to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s death – it is almost as though she had planned it. I couldn’t wait to see what this story, written ten years after all her other much-loved tales, had in store for me.

The newest addition to the collection tells the tale of a very serious, well-behaved black cat by the name Catherine St. Quintin who likes nothing more than to sneak out at night and poach animals with her air gun. Like all of Beatrix Potter’s tales it is filled with funny escapades with the characters falling into one or two unfortunate scrapes, before ultimately learning a rather valuable lesson. Diehard fans of Beatrix Potter will be delighted to encounter a ‘stout buck rabbit in a blue coat’, who bares more than a striking resemblance to a mischievous young bunny once seen stealing radishes from Mr Macgregor’s garden – it looks like Mrs McGregor never did get her winter coat – as well as one or two other familiar faces and more than a few news ones.

Of course, half of the delight in a children’s book is in the illustrations and while I will admit I was slightly surprised when I saw that Quentin Blake was illustrating the book,  I think the result is absolutely stunning. Who better to illustrate a book by one of Britain’s most-loved children’s authors than one of Britain’s most loved children’s book illustrators? His drawings are nothing like Beatrix Potter’s, but I wouldn’t have liked to read a book where Beatrix Potter’s style was mimicked. Blake doesn’t attempt to fill Beatrix Potter’s shoes, he merely pays homage to her work, and does a remarkable job of it. The illustrations are perfect, wonderfully encapsulating the action and humour in Beatrix Potter’s latest tale.

What’s more Blake’s illustrator’s note, where he hopes that Beatrix potter would have approved of his work and speaks of his pride at being given the opportunity to illustrate such a book, is so sweet and endearing. I truly think he has done wonders with the text and brought the book to life in a way that none other than Beatrix Potter herself could have. My one slight disappointment is that the few drawings that Beatrix Potter did create to accompany the story could not be included in the publication.

Overall, however, I think this book is a real delight to read, filled with Beatrix Potter’s classical charm, but with slightly more adult escapades than the previous publications. There is also a subtle, perhaps satirical ribbon running through it which suggests that what is natural does not always come naturally.

There is no doubt that it was written by the Beatrix potter we all know and love, but the style is  different to her earlier works. Not worse, just different. Of course, we can’t know whether there was a deliberate attempt on the part of the author to change her writing style, or if the book was left in a somewhat unfinished state. Whatever the case may be, it is a truly charming read and I will happily place it alongside my other Beatrix Potter books, and no doubt look on it time and time again.

I know the publication is a couple of months too late, but happy birthday Beatrix, may you continue to delight us, and future generations for many, many years to come.

 

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley, with an introduction by Francine Prose

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In June 1816 on a rainy evening by Lake Geneva a young girl created a story about an enthusiastic young science student who developed a technique to bring life to non-living matter, with devastating consequences. The resulting novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, went on to become one of the greatest novels of the 19th century.

This year, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s fateful trip to Geneva, Restless Books has released a brand new edition of the acclaimed novel, with a new introduction by Francine Prose and stunning original artwork by acclaimed Mexican artist Eko.

The Constant Nymph – Margaret Kennedy

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The first thing that attracted me to this book was the cover; I saw it on a vintage book website and fell completely and utterly into love with the artwork. There is something so natural and beautiful about the image, it is the essence of innocence, of fun, and beauty.

So, what’s the background of the image? Who are these young, carefree people swimming so leisurely in an alpine lake? They are the Sanger children, the brood of avant-garde composer Albert Sanger, and this is exactly the situation that their uncle finds them in when he comes to rescue them following the untimely death of their father. Swimming naked, like heathens, in the crystal clear water.

The Sanger children live in a quaint yet somewhat disorderly life in a small chalet in the Swiss Alps, surrounded by an ever moving stream of their father’s admirers, who come and go with ease. The family and their life are chaotic, full of arguments, quests for attention, childish follies and trips of pleasure, but each visitor to the strange dwelling falls under a kind of spell. Step foot inside the Sanger chalet, and all claims of respectable life or upbringing are sure to fall away, swept away by the beauty of free spiritedness, the alpine breeze, and the musical tolling of cow bells.

When I think of the Alps there are many things that come to mind – alpine milk, pine trees, lush green grass, snow capped mountains and the sound of birdsong to name but a few – but with individual characteristics set aside, I am left with an overall feeling that I find rather difficult to describe. Imagine trying to describe how it feels to fill your lungs with cool, crisp air, or to listen to the wind blow through the trees. It’s not just a sound, or a physical feeling, but something more. With The Constant Nymph, Margaret Kennedy somehow captures the emotion of a secluded Alpine dwelling, bottling the pure essence of the Sanger family’s existence and transporting the reader straight into mountains, to experience the sights and smells for themselves.

“They paused for a moment to look over the valley and saw empty air in front of them, and, far below, the tops of tree and little cows and their carriage crawling back along the valley road. Cow bells rose very faintly like single drop of music distilled into this upper silence.”

Within the chalet, life is less typically idyllic. Sanger is not what you would necessarily call a good role model – if fact, he’s a pretty terrible father. He neglects the children, leaving them to be brought up by their eldest sister, and to live more or less by their own devices. But with neglect comes an incredible amount of freedom, an experience unlike no other, the ability to do exactly as they like, and to live with almost no restrictions. The freedom and prosperity of the children is refreshing – they live a life of new age hippiedome, long before the swinging sixties.

“A large barn of a place with very little furniture… the entire wardrobe of the young ladies lay about the permanently in heaps on the floor amid books, music, guitars, cigarette ends, cherry stones and dust.”

The life of Sanger’s circus in the Alps is certainly unconventional, but it is the unconventionality of the situation that makes it so enchanting. It is untreated, natural, and unashamedly beautiful – I am almost sad to say that the book does not continue in this vain, but all things must end.

Sanger’s death, though a shock to the inner workings of the alpine household is not wholly unexpected on the part of the reader, as it is subtly foreshadowed by a sudden change in one of Sanger’s many children, Tessa.

“Teresa said nothing but crouched at the top of the stairs, brooding disconsolately, her thin arms round her knees. Suddenly she had become intensely miserable. She stared down into the darkness of the hall, cut in two by the moonlight which streamed in through the door. She could not bear it. She jumped up with a little cry of exasperation.”

Tessa’s sudden and intense misery is like a predomination of her life to come. After the death of their father, the children are thrown into disarray. With no money, no education, and no parents to support them, the circus is forced to split up and each, once carefree, affiliate to attempt a more conventional way of life. A once perfect existence stripped away, leaving nothing more than the bitter aftertaste of a life once lived.

As much as I loved the picture of the Sanger family up in the hills, it is the time that follows which really makes the novel – the characters are stolen from their isolationist existence in the mountains and plunged face first into a bitter, cold, hard reality.  It’s difficult for everyone, but none more so than the delicate Tessa, the constant, once-carefree, nymph, for whom the bells tolls the sound of tragedy.

It’s difficult to put into words how I feel about this book. I could say that I liked it, or even loved it, but I don’t feel that adequately encapsulates the emotion behind reading a book like this. It is both tragically beautiful, and beautifully tragic, beginning as a carefree skip through a lush green valley, and culminating with a scene so gut wrenchingly tragic that it will give you a book hangover to end all book hangovers. Once nothing more than a captivating image on a computer screen, The Constant Nymph has made it firmly onto my shelf of books to recommend.

 

 

Cambridge Book Club – Norwegian Wood

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This has been a very long time coming.

Norwegian Wood was recommended as a book club read about ten months ago, but our group fell into absolutely chaos not long after and we haven’t met since. Such is life in a university city, you can never pin people down. Today (what better day than World Book Day?) I officially give up hope that our book club will ever meet again, or discuss the novel, which, by the way, would have made for an incredible topic of conversation. So I throw the rope to you, fellow book clubbers, go out, buy Norwegian Wood, and get reading.

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me
She showed me her room, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?

Music can carry memories, of a time, a place or a feeling. ‘Norwegian Wood’, the melancholy Beatles song, has this effect on Toru Watanabe, who, as he hears the first sad notes, is swept back almost twenty years, to his time spent studying in Tokyo.  A time filled with confusion and rebellion, student life in the late 1960s was rife with protests, social unrest, and nationwide movements against the establishment. For Wanatabe life is just as tumultuous – filled with strange encounters, casual sex, meaningless friendships, and an undying commitment towards a gentle but troubled girl from his childhood. Life is confusing, but monotonous, until an impulsive young woman, with wide-open eyes and an attitude to match, streams into Wanatabe’s life, and he finds himself forced to make a choice, the future, or the past.

I fell completely in love with this book and, I can safely say having explored some more of his work, with Murikami himself. I know one or two members of the club didn’t feel quite the same as I did, but as we foolishly kept our discussions to a minimum, choosing to save our thoughts for the meeting which never occurred, I was unable to discuss it at length with anyone. So, if any of you have read the book and want to discuss it, in the comment sections or via email, I would be more than happy.

In the meantime, here are a few questions to think about, or to discuss with your own book clubs:

What were your feelings towards the main characters, Wanatabe, Naoko and Midori – how do they differ?
What is the relevance of the song ‘Norwegian Wood’? Does this relate to more than just a song?
Wanatabe often draws on his love of the book The Great Gatsby , why do you think this is?
How do you interpret Wantabe’s friendship with Nagasawa?
How, if at all, do you think the sexual encounter between Wanatabe and Naoko influence Naoko’s mental state?
Why do you think Wanatabe makes his final choice? Does he, in fact, make a choice at all?
How do you interpet the novel’s ending? What is happening to Wanatabe during this final exchange?
The book begins looking back, and never returns to the original tense, why do you think this is?
What do you think Wantabes ‘current’ situation is? Where did he end up?
Norwegian Wood is considered to be the most autobiographical of all Murikami’s books – what elements do you think speak of autobiographical moments?

 

 

How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design – Katherine Isbister

“If I was feeling depressed or frustrated about my lot in life, all I had to do was tap the Player One button, and my worries would instantly slip away as my mind focused itself on the relentless pixelated onslaught on the screen in front of me.” ― Ernest Cline

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What do you see when you hear the word ‘gamer’? If your immediate vision is that of someone pasty white, sat hunched over a keyboard, face lit only by the pale blue light of a computer monitor, insistently clicking away for hours on end with no real aim in mind, then get ready to re-evaluate your stereotype.

For years now filmographers and music researchers have analysed the emotional effect of film and music, while the computer game industry has been largely ignored as un-emotive. Katharine Ibister poses the question – why should games be any different?

In ‘How Games Move Us’, Ibister attempts break down the negative stereotype surrounding computer games and open up public conversation up to a more sophisticated approach to computer games as a cultural medium. The book serves as an exploration of the emotional experience of gamers, as well as how different games are used, explored and experienced by different people

“People talk about how games don’t have the emotional impact of movie. I think they do – they just have a different palette. I never felt pride, or guilt, watching a movie.” – Will Wright, designer of The Sims.

Far from being devoid of emotion, video games, Ibister argues, can actually elicit strong emotional responses in players in a multitude of ways, ranging from a simple feeling of anxiety in horror-based survival games (think Amnesia, or Silent Hill); to the inexplicable feeling of guilt which arises from spanking a pet Tamagotchi, or worse, letting it die. Delving further into the simulated world of gaming, Ibister also analyses how certain games create strong emotional bonds between players and non-player characters, and social connections among players in networked games.

Ibister analyses the techniques used by game designers to create these emotional responses, drawing examples from across the gaming industry. Ibister analyses games ranging from much-loved classics such as The Sims and Little Big Planet, to more obscure, one-off projects, including Anna Anthropy’s cooperative maze-navigation game Keep Me Occupied, and the once great massively multiplayer online role-playing game City of Heroes.

Many of you may take issue with a researcher attempting to define games as a whole – Ibister does not try to do this. The huge variety of games are not merely thrown into the melting pot labelled ‘computer games’ –  she differentiates but does not attempt to define, focusing on certain games within sub genres while acknowledging the partiality of her analysis.

How Games Move Us is an incredibly interesting, enlightening, and poignant read, and will no doubt evoke similar feelings in a reader as it strives to explain in a gamer. Ibister presents a new way of thinking about and understanding games, a medium which, though misunderstood, offers players

This review was first posted on WordPress for E&T magazine.