WorldBookProject – It’s Half Time!

Yep, reason to celebrate: I’ve read half of the books I set out to read in this project. So many wonderful discoveries in all those countries and territories – there are plenty of places I want to explore further, as well as many more authors whose books are all waiting to be read. In this post, we’re doing a bit more island hopping throughout the Atlantic and the Pacific. Many thanks to the Star-Wars-fan in the Balfour Library who used his Librarian Superpowers to find a misplaced book and to Ian Alexander for providing me with choices for Malta.

123 Jamaica: Erna Brodber – Jane and Louisa will soon come home

Hm. Who are Jane and Louisa? Why did they leave? Where to? Why do they want to / have to come home? I have no idea.

124 Malta: Stephen C. Spiteri – The Great Siege: Knights vs Turks MDLXV Anatomy of a Hospitaller Victory

That book could easily have been used as a brick in one of the forts under siege. The chapters about weapons and armor were not so exciting for me. However, I found it fascinating and was horrified by the human interest side of things. Seems to me that people haven’t changed that much – religion is still used as a smokescreen for ambition and power.

125 Niue: John Pule and Nicolas Thomas –  Hiapo: Past and present in Niuean barkcloth

A poet and an anthropologist write about an almost forgotten form of art. What a little treasure this book was! I shall walk through museums or exhibitions about the Pacific with new eyes.

126 Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha: D.M. Booy – Rock of Exile: A Narrative of Tristan da Cunha

Books or actually any reading materials from this British overseas territory are few and far between. I was glad I found this account of a soldier in a far-flung outpost during WWII. It was very much of its time – dominance of men, and specifically men from the British Empire. However, I liked to learn a bit about the local dialect of Tristan da Cunha: ‘Don’t cruelize the cat.’ is something you don’t hear everyday (luckily, for the cat!).

127 Svalbard: Ajahn Amaro – The hush at the end of the world: a pilgrimage to the Arctic wilderness

This book is a tale of what happens when three Buddhist monks go on a ritual journey North – not much, and that very peacefully. I loved how their calm and the silence of the places they visited came to life through the pages.

128 Tokelau: by different people or by groups of people for whom one person acted as a scribe – Matagi Tokelau: history and traditions of Tokelau

Finding written literature from cultures with an oral tradition is always a bit tricky. So I was glad that I stumbled across this collection by unknown authors while looking for something else. Most interesting and also terrifying was what is in all likelihood one of the earliest accounts of the effects of rising levels due to climate change: a flood, in 1987.

WorldBookProject – Eritrea, Turks and Caicos, South Georgia and Uganda

Here come four very different additions to WorldBookProject. Many thanks to Ilana Benady who suggested more Caribbean writers.

119 Eritrea: Helen Berhane with Emma Newrick – Song of the Nightingale: One woman’s dramatic story of faith and persecution in Eritrea

This book is a short and deeply disturbing autobiography. It mainly deals with the author’s horrific experiences in an Eritrean prison. It was impressive how her religion helped her through those times, but I also have to say that such fanaticism (in this case some kind of Christian belief) makes me rather uncomfortable. I have very little patience for proselytising, and this book had way too much for my taste.

120 South Georgia & Sandwich Islands: Royal Anglian South Georgia Expedition 1991 – Royal Anglian South Georgia Expedition

When some grown-up boys are going on an adventure … and end up in snow caves and on rations – this could also have been the title of the expedition. Having been to South Georgia myself, I mightily enjoyed reading this report, especially the part of the canoeing team. My respect to the expedition member who was on quarter rations and refused to eat freshly slaughtered penguin. Hero material!

121 Turks and Caicos:  Amelia Smithers – The Turks and Caicos Islands: lands of discovery

It was really tricky to find something other than a map or a government report for this British overseas territory, even within the extensive collections of the Bodleian libraries. So I opted for this kind of guidebook, but I couldn’t find any information about the author (and that’s quite a feat these days). The book was from the early 1990s, and it was brilliant to read about movements to protect the environment of the islands, in particular from too much tourism.

122 Uganda: Doreen Baingana – Tropical Fish

I found this collection of coming-of-age stories totally gripping. The questions it raised about identity and how it is sometimes forced upon us by our environment really struck a chord. I also liked the change of perspective between the three sisters the stories were about. Highly recommended!

May Morning

Oxford is home to many traditions, and one of them is May Morning.

This is how you do it: get up at about 4am, try to put on your clothes the right way round and walk into the city centre. Don’t jump off Magdalen Bridge.
 

Stand in front of Magdalen Tower and admire the people who come from last night’s party and look more awake than you will feel for the whole day. Wait for crowds to assemble properly.

Wait patiently until 6am. Listen to Magdalen College Choir intoning the Hymnus Eucharisticus and madrigals, and the chiming of the tower bells. Applaud.Magdalen tower

Follow the crowds on the High Street up to Radcliffe Camera. Leave a minute or two to ponder any signs you come across.

Divert your attention to May Morning get-ups ranging from leafy headgear to walking trees.

Upon arrival or along the way, take in any occurrences of Samba, pipers and Scottish dancers, rock music, English folk music or Morris dancing.

Finally, try to find a pub that’s only 105% full so you can have breakfast. Failing that, try and make your way home. Can’t guarantee that’s possible, though.

sign2

Wrocław – Animals

Wrocław, which we visited in mid-November, turned out to be full of creatures of all kinds, not only tourists. The beasts appeared in many forms, a selection of which follows here.

There’s plenty of beer to be had, and there are allegedly some bears roaming the forests. I can confirm many a gull flying around.

Wrocław is also home to a magnificent zoo. There they have real rhinos.

After WWII, Wrocław lay in ruins, but it has been rebuilt wonderfully. Buildings in the centre are marked with plaques in Polish, English, and sometimes German which inform about the building’s history and also the people who lived and/or worked there. Animalic decoration abounds.

The place is steeped in history and features lots of statues. And it came as a lovely surprise to find a memorial to all the slaughtered & eaten animals.animal-memorial

The only other place I’ve seen something vaguely similar is London – the memorial to the animals which died in wars.

Wrocław also used to have the third-biggest Jewish community in Germany before WWII. So, there are two Jewish cemeteries in town. We visited the older one, and found many birds, a stone butterfly and an agile cat.

Exploring the East: Spišské Podhradie

The tiny town of Spišské Podhradie is home to some awesome attractions and also a UNESCO Worlcathedral-in-spissky-podhradied Heritage site. First of all, there is Spišská Kapitula, or Spiš Chapter House. It is really like a town within a town.

I did a tour of the cathedral. The different styles of altars were all fascinating, tacky at times, beautifully crafted and not allowed to be photographed.

From the hill with the Chapter House on one has several hiking options and some lovely views. One such view is of the other main attraction of the village, Spiš Castle.

spissky-hrad-from-afar

To get to the village, you can take one of the many busses going there. I arrived early in the morning to beat the crowds, which turned out to be a rather good idea. In fact, when I got there, it was still foggy, the dew hanging in the cobwebs and I was the only one hiking up to the castle.

Once I had reached the top, the weather played along nicely and the fog lifted. The castle is one of the largest in Europe.spissky-hrad

I was there just after they had opened, and it filled up quite quickly. Yes, the place is huge, but there’s a small museum inside which soon became overcrowded. Actors in period costumes put on plays, and craftspeople sold lovely looking merchandise. I was quite fond of pottery items, but for fear of breaking them while walking around I didn’t buy any. Rather, I managed to escape the throngs and enjoyed the quieter parts of the castle.view-of-high-tatras-from-spissky-hrad

The castle is divided in a lower and an upper part. Architecturally, the upper one is probably the more exciting. Twarningshere is just more to see and explore. One has to beware of dangerous animals though.

The lower part is basically an open space surrounded by an enormous wall. It’s open grassland, and signs point out that there can be a number of birds and other animals. I only saw the spermophiles, but plenty of them. All in all, I spent about three hours on the castle grounds, and two or so in the Chapter House. Podhradie is only about 20km from Levoca, so it makes for a nice day trip from there.spermophil-1

Resistance is the secret to happiness

WorldBookProject is going strong with some really good reads in the second half of November. I also enjoyed reading quite a bit in German – and I suspect the number of German translations I’ll read might actually rise, since it seems that translation into German occurs more than into English.

80 Dominican Republic: Julia Alvarez – Die Zeit der Schmetterlinge

I’ve lost count of how often I’ve already written ‘I had no idea …’, and Dominican history is part of this sad chorus. Luckily, ‘In the time of butterflies‘ has rectified that a bit. Beautifully written, the part I loved most was how the perspective was shifted from one of four sisters to the next. The story itself made your blood freeze at times, but it showed the resistance against dictatorship, censorship and discrimination is not futile. Vivas las mariposas!

81 Greece: Amanda Michalopoulou – Why I killed my best friend

Greek history after WWII – no idea … and in the case of this book I actually believe my understanding of the story might have gained from some help by the author (by using footnotes?) because of all the political parties and shenanigans between them. Having said that, the main story about a possessive and destructive friendship, or dependence, or emotional shackling, kept me hooked until the very last page. The title of the post is a quote from the book.

82 Mali: Modibo Sounkalo Keita – Bogenschütze

Superficially a crime novel, this book had plenty to it. The avenging archer who gave the story its title, corruption, issues with polygamy, environmental disaster – the story had it all. While on the whole I enjoyed most aspects of this novel, I have to say that the way it dealt with women was sometimes patronizing and in one or two scenes actually insulting.

83 Senegal: Mariama Bâ – Ein so langer Brief

‘So long a letter’ was honest, depressing, powerful stuff about how to live a meaningful and fulfilled life despite all the madness and evil that life (=other people) throws at you. This tiny book is a shining beacon in the pits so many women are still forced to exist in.

 

Giving a talk

At some point last August, I was kindly asked by a friend and former student of mine, Milo, to consider giving a talk at an upcoming conference called Dell3i. It was supposed to be something akin to a TED-talk; and after a week or so of weighing pros and cons I decided to say yes.

I want to use this post to do two things: firstly, thank all the people involved who helped me preparing my talk, and secondly give some sources for some of the ideas I mentioned. The reason for the latter is that I drew on a lot of things I have heard and read or experienced over the years, but some people were particularly influential. And I should probably add that this is not a Dell-sponsored post.

So, thank you (in no particular order):

  • Daniel, Monika and Milo for the rehearsals
  • Astrid for a wonderful walk through Oxford
  • Mark for being a (mostly) willing victim
  • Rhiannon, Emily, Pavol, Eva, Barbora, David, Lucia and Alica for listening
  • my colleagues and students for encouraging me
  • Marcel for the book voucher (it’s been put to very good use)

If you’ve been following this blog for longer, you’ll know that I’m doing volunteer work for the citizen science platform Zooniverse. The two photos in the talk, about Galaxy Zoo and Penguin Watch, are copyright of those respective projects.

As mentioned in the talk, Yuval Harari‘s ideas from his book ‘Sapiens’ are fascinating. I took part in his MOOC a few years ago, and I hope he’ll do a similar project again in the future.

Other people whose blogs or books I’ve recently read or who I’ve heard speaking and who had some bearing on this talk were Richard Dawkins, Tayie Selasi, Ann Morgan and Tom Hart. Any factual errors are my own 🙂 .

Now, what was it like? As a teacher, I’m used to being in front of people (I’ve taught classes of 50+ students, tricky to ‘un-front’ that), but having an audience of 100+ and on top of that the cameras was a wee bit otherworldly. And exhilarating, I’ve got to admit. If you want to watch it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ys93TAyNfHY&feature=youtu.be