THERE’S HOPE FOR ALZHEIMER’S

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The Alzheimer’s Society defines the disease this way: Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. The word dementia describes a set of symptoms that can include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. This means that gradually, over time, more parts of the brain are damaged. As this happens, more symptoms develop. They also become more severe.

“It is impossible to escape the drumbeat of grim news about Alzheimer’s disease: that it is incurable and largely untreatable, that there is no reliable way to prevent it and that the disease has for decades beaten the world’s best neuroscientists. No wonder we have come to fear Alzheimer’s as omnipotent. As hopeless. As impervious to any and all treatments.”…..

Until now.

Dr Dale Bredesen, Professor of Neurology at the University of California, is internationally recognised as an expert in the mechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

In his book, The End of Alzheimer’s, he offers real hope to anyone looking to prevent and even reverse Alzheimer’s Disease and the cognitive decline of dementia.

Dr Bredesen reveals the 36 affecting metabolic factors and outlines a proven programme to rebalance them, which patients can follow with the help of a healthcare professional. There are also general lifestyle and dietary changes all readers can adopt to improve cognitive health.

Although there is much scientific evidence in the book to support Dr Bredesen’s conclusions, it is in part a practical, easy-to-use, step-by-step manual for preventing and reversing the cognitive decline of early Alzheimer’s disease or its precursors, mild cognitive impairment and subjective cognitive impairment, and for sustaining that improvement.

It is also a guidebook by which the millions of people who carry the ApoE4 gene can escape the fate written in their DNA. The protocol behind this is called ReCODE, for reversal of cognitive decline.

Dr Bredesen opens the book’s concluding chapter with this: “Give how often we hear that Alzheimer’s disease is neither preventable nor reversible, I wouldn’t be surprised if the success stories I’ve shared and the scientific research that underlies ReCODE have left you sceptical…to make the end of Alzheimer’s reality for everyone, however, will require that we update our practices from 20th century medicine to 21st century medicine and that we are proactive about our own cognitive and general health.”

“Everyone knows a cancer survivor, but no one knows an Alzheimer’s survivor. As I hope I have succeeded in showing you in this book, that is yesterday’s news. The world has changed.”

According to www.alzheimers.org.za : “Already 62% of people with dementia live in developing countries, but by 2050 this will rise to 71%. According to South Africa’s 2011 census, there are approximately 2.2 million people in South Africa with some form of dementia.”

At the very least, read Dr Dale Bredesen’s The End of Alzheimer’s – the First Programme to Prevent and Reverse the Cognitive Decline of Dementia, make sure your medical practitioner does as well and get the conversation started.

The book and Dr Bredesen’s protocol have been called ‘phenomenal’, “a monumental work’, ‘a masterful, authoritative and, ultimately, hopeful patient guide’.

Not all that is in the book is that easy to follow, but its key elements are. I found it eye-opening, fascinating and uplifting and ultimately hopeful.

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ALL ABOUT ALI

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ALI – A LIFE by Jonathan Eig

There can be but a handful of people who don’t know anything at all about him, for those very few:

Muhammad Ali, who died in 2016, was an American professional boxer, three time heavyweight champion of the world. He is regarded as one of the most iconic sporting figures of the last century, if not of all time. He was a larger than life and often a controversial figure both inside and outside the ring.

“His great-grandfather was a slave. His grandfather was a convicted murderer who shot a man through the heart in a quarrel over a quarter. His father was a drinker, a bar fighter, a womaniser, and a wife beater who once in a drunken rage slashed his eldest son with a knife. These are the roots of Muhammad Ali, who was born with what he called the slave name Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, and who ultimately became one of the most famous and influential men of his time.”

There have been many books written about Muhammad Ali, but Ali – A Life, by Jonathan Eig is the most comprehensive biography of Muhammad Ali that has ever been published.

Eig conducted over 600 interviews with those who new Ali best and has given us a captivating, comprehensive and well-balanced portrait of the man, neither idolatry nor sensationalistic in treatment.

One gets the whole Ali, from his childhood, his boxing career, his private and family life. One learns too of the many causes and issues he championed such as his involvement with the Nation of Islam, which had a profound effect on him.

These two paragraphs from the book, maybe more than any others, provide so much insight into Ali’s formative make-up:

“While his spelling and punctuation were better than his parents’, the young Cassius was a slow reader and hesitant writer. The written word frustrated him and would for much of his life. Years later, family members would say that Cassius was dyslexic. But the diagnosis was little known and infrequently applied when he was young. The only thing about school that he liked was the audience it provided. Attention was what he craved most, and he earned it with irrepressible exuberance as well as with boxing.”

“Boxing, he said, ‘made me feel like something different. The kids used to make fun of me. But I always liked attention and publicity….attracting attention, showmanship, I liked the most. And soon I was the most popular kid at the school’.

Of course, Ali – A Life extensively details Ali’s boxing career. As familiar as many will be with this aspect of his life, in the boxing chapters so much more is revealed including how the “boxing business” is conducted, it doesn’t make for happy reading.

“Sooner or later, just about every great fighter attracts an entourage. At first the athlete is flattered by the attention of people who want to be near him. He thinks the sycophants might be fun and perhaps even useful to keep around. Before he knows it, he’s travelling in a crowd with a bunch of men in possession of vague titles and even vaguer job descriptions, men who expect first-class hotels, fine food, beautiful women, and payment in cash.”

It is astonishing how many people benefitted financially from Ali’s success, and the longer he continued to fight the more they stood to gain. It is alarming just how many times Ali donned gloves and climbed into a boxing ring. After reading this book, few will view the sport of boxing in the same light. The downside of the sport is revealed in all its depressing detail in the Ali experience of it. If this is what happened to one of boxing supreme exponents, one shudders to imagine what befell those many, many fighters without Ali’s skills….

“In an early interview, a reporter asked just how much of his bragging was genuine. How much of his ‘I am the greatest and gee ain’t I pretty’ routine did he believe. He answered precisely and without hesitation: ’Seventy five percent.’ It must have been refreshing for the public to know that there were limits to his self- love. Was it possible he possessed a trace of humility?”

“Born in the age of Jim Crow, Ali lived to see a black man elected president. Just as remarkable was the arc of his own life: the son of a poorly educated sign painter became the most famous man in the world; the greatest professional fighter of his time became his country’s most important draft resister. Although he had always been ambitious and always yearned for wealth, he had somehow remained warm and genuine, a man of sincere feeling and wit. Bitterness and cynicism never touched him-perhaps because he recognised this lesson of his own life: that American society, for all its flaws, produced remarkable men from unremarkable origins. He himself, indubitably was one.”

In one of his final interviews, he assessed his own accomplishments: “I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man. I had to show that to the world.”

After reading the book, one’s take-away impression of Muhammad Ali is likely to be affected. Ali – A Life doesn’t pull any punches, there is much sadness and maybe even some disappointment. His stature as a great boxer and his positive legacy to the sport remains unblemished. Ali, the person comes across as a courageous, enormously kind, caring and generous man. Add to this, more than a dab of naivety, too little self- care and maybe too much unbridled giving of himself.

Ali – A Life is a tremendous work of biography. Astonishing both in its detail and its breadth, it goes far beyond just being a boxing biography, it is an evocative chronicle of an era and of the life of an iconic, extraordinary man.

MANDELA& BIZOS -A CELEBRATION OF A FRIENDSHIP

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Born in Greece, George Bizos is a revered Human Rights Lawyer. His legal career is largely associated with all the major human rights trails in the decades of apartheid. Subsequently, he acted for the ANC at the post-1994 constitutional hearings, and is on the staff of the Legal Resources Centre.

His new book, 65 Years of Friendship is the heartwarming and often heartrending story of his remarkable friendship with Nelson Mandela.

Bizos and Mandela met as law students at the University of the Witwatersrand in the 1940s. A strong relationship developed – they remained friends, colleagues, professional and personal until President Mandela passed away in 2013.

Any friendship that endured for 65 years would be rich in anecdotes. But the friendship between two extraordinary men, whose life work affected the lives of all South Africans, delivers so much more.

65 Years of Friendship delivers a magnificent personal account of this relationship. But at the same time, Bizos offers historical background to give context it.

Mandela became Bizos’ most famous client, forming part of his legal defence during the Treason Trial and again during the Rivonia Trial.

After seeing his friend sentenced to life imprisonment, Bizos became Mandela’s aide, often navigating complicated networks of the “Struggle” on his behalf. Working persistently, be it by secretly meeting Oliver Tambo in exile or arguing for the abolishment of the death penalty in the Constitutional Court years later, Bizos offered his unwavering support to Mandela and his fight for a democratic South Africa.

In George Bizos’ own words: “This is my story of our friendship as I remember it. My friend and colleague, Arthur Chaskalson, the former chief justice, one said of me: ’George has such a good memory that he even remembers things that did not happen.” I will not take it as far as that, but recognise that there are things that I have forgotten, perhaps even some that I have muddled, and for that I apologise in advance. This is a short book about a long friendship.”

Bizos pains at having lost four close friends over a short space of time: Nelson Mandela, Arthur Chaskalson, Nadine Gordimer and Jules Browde. He shared his feelings while chatting to Graca Machel and shared with her that he dreamt that the bell may soon toll for him.

Her reply: “Stop thinking about the bell tolling for you and think what your dear friends would want you to continue doing. “Bizos told her that he was trying.

Long live, George Bizos. May he continue the long walk for many years to come.

65 Years of Friendship may indeed be ‘a short book’ (too short!), but it is an absolutely delightful, witty, insightful, revealing and informative read. I savoured every page of it.

 

 

 

HILLARY CLINTON UNPLUGGED

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Hillary Rodham Clinton is the first woman in U.S. history to become the nominee of a major political party. She served as the 67th Secretary of State, from 21 January 2009 until 1 February 2013, after nearly four decades in public service advocating on behalf of children and families as an attorney, First Lady and Senator. She is a wife, mother and grandmother.

“In the past, for reasons I try to explain, I’ve often felt I had to be careful in public, like I was up on a wire without a net. Now I’m letting my guard down.”

This is the Hillary that we saw and enjoyed so much on a recent episode of the Graham Norton Show.

Her new book, What Happened, is both informative and revealing and a most personal memoir. The book’s dedication sets the tone: “For the team who stood with me in 2016 and worked their hearts out for a better, stronger, fairer America. Being your candidate was one of the greatest honours of my life.”

“This is the story of what I saw, felt, and thought during two of the most intense years I’ve ever experienced. It’s the story of American history and how I kept going after a shocking defeat; how I reconnected with the things that matter most to me and begin to look ahead with hope, instead of backwards with regret. It’s also the story of what happened tour country, why we are so divided and what we can do about it.”

At times pleasingly emotional, Hillary thankfully doesn’t hold back. She also reveals a charming wit that may have been less visible in her public life

She describes what it was like to run against Donald Trump, and details the mistakes she made. Campaigning is gruelling and the insight into what it is like ‘on the road’ makes for engrossing reading.

But equally engrossing reading are the chapters in the book that detail her personal beliefs, the matters of policy that chaptered her public life and those that will anchor her life out of office.

Clinton reveals that after the election she had intended to keep relatively quiet. She says that former Presidents and former nominees often try to keep a respectful distance from politics – at least for a while.

“But these aren’t ordinary times, and Trump isn’t an ordinary President”. Surely there is nobody who could disagree with her about that.

Whatever the reasons are, Clinton was and remains a controversial figure. As a result, those who read What Happened might find in it little that will change their opinion of her. None who tread this Earth is without fault, not Hillary Rodham Clinton, nor her praise singers, nor her detractors.

Some might say that What Happened focuses too much on the hurt of that defeat and that maybe it was written to soon. Others may have wished for even more introspection as to the reasons for the defeat.

But not since the late Ted Kennedy’s excellent, True Compass, has a book taken one so deeply into the heart of the American politic and in such a page-turning way.

Speaking at her alma mater, Wellesley College after the election she asked: what do we do know? And answered “Keep on going.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton will hopefully, use the many years that lie ahead of her, to devote her energy to those causes she believes will make her country a better place for all.

 

 

SWEET TOOTH PARADISE

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The name Yotam Ottolenghi is well known to lovers of international cookbooks. He is chef-patron of the Ottolenghi delis and NOPI restaurant in London and has published five bestselling cookbooks: Plenty, Plenty More, Ottolenghi The Cookbook, Jerusalem, and Nopi: The Cookbook.

Fans old and new will find much to delight in his latest book, Sweet, which he co-authored with Helen Goh.

Goh was born in Malaysia but started her cooking career in Australia, where she had migrated with her family as a girl. After 7 years as head pastry chef at Donovans, a landmark Melbourne restaurant, she moved to London and soon joined Ottolenghi. She has worked closely with Yotam as the lead product developer for the past ten years. Helen draws widely on Asian, Western and Middle Eastern influences in her cooking – and of course, on her love of sweets.

Not holding back from the truth, they confess in the book’s Preface:

“There’s so much sugar in this book that we thought about calling it, well, Sugar. Here we are celebrating the sweet things in life. We say this not to be irreverent or flippant – we are completely aware of the current concerns about the adverse effects of sugar – but we want to make it clear that this is a recipe book full of over 110 sweet things…..there is nothing wrong with treats, as long as we know what they are and enjoy them as such.”
“The Ottolenghi way has always been about abundance, inclusion and celebration. It’s the way we’ve always cooked and it’s the way we’ve always baked. It’s the way we’ve always eaten and the way we’ve always lived.”

As a person that looks at the desserts menu first when visiting a restaurant for the first time, I can only say, hear hear!

Sweet is divided into seven sections and in listing them I have included with each a couple that have caught my sweet tooth’s eye:

Cookies and biscuits – Almond, pistachio and sour cherry wafers; Gevulde Speculaas.

Mini-cakes – Tahini and halva brownies; Blackberry and star anise friands.

Cakes – Parsnip and pecan cake with aniseed and orange; Grappa fruit cake

Cheesecakes – Fig, orange and marscapone cheesecake; Chocolate banana ripple cheesecake

Tarts and pies – Walnuts and black treacle tarts with crystalized sage; Schiacciata with grapes and fennel seeds

Desserts – Ricotta crepes with figs, honey and pistachio; Sticky fig pudding

Confectionery – Pecan and Prosecco truffles; Almond and aniseed nougat

Sweet’s recipes are mostly very doable and finding the ingredients locally should not be a problem. Their diversity of flavours and textures make for divine indulgence.

I suggest you indulge your sweet tooth to your heart’s content and then go for some intense sessions at your local gym…

 

WE CAN BE OUR OWN JAILOR, BUT ALSO OUR OWN LIBERATOR

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I recently said to my wife that with all the books that I have reviewed for the Cape Times this year, I was still hoping to read one that “blew my mind”, then “The Choice” landed on my desk. It is my personal choice as my Read of 2017, what a book!

Here’s my review of it:

In 1944, when she was sixteen, Edith Eger was sent to Auschwitz, where she was made to dance for the infamous Josef Mengele. Over the coming months, her courage helped her sister to survive and led to her won rescue during a death march. When their camp was finally liberated, Edith was pulled from a pile of bodies, barely alive.

Today, Hungarian-born Clinical psychologist, Dr. Edith Eger maintains a busy clinical practice in La Jolla, California, holds a faculty appointment at the University of California—San Diego, and also serves as a consultant for the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy in resiliency training and the treatment of PTSD. She regularly gives lectures around the country and abroad.

In her memoir, The Choice, she draws on her experience of the Holocaust and the remarkable stories of those she has helped ever since, she shows how true freedom becomes possible once we confront our suffering.

There have been many excellent Holocaust memoirs and on that criterion alone, The Choice would easily stand up there with the best. But there is so much more to this particular memoir.

For decades since their liberation, many survivors were emotionally unable to share their stories. Dr Eger has been able to go a considerable distance further than just sharing her Holocaust story, she has used her experiences and story to help others, with the aim of “helping each of us escape the prisons of our own minds.”

The Auschwitz part of her story is a harrowing, emotional, uplifting account of the trauma she endured during and after the war. There were passages in the narrative with such emotional impact that I had to pause before being able to continue reading.

The choices Eger made that contributed to her ultimate survival are many. “The more choices you have the more doors that are open for you.”

Just one example: When she was made to dance for Josef Mengele, she discovered a piece of wisdom that she has never forgotten:

“I will never know what miracle of grace allows me this insight. It will save my life many times, even after the horror is over. I can see that Dr Mengele, the seasoned killer who just this morning murdered my mother, is more pitiful than me. I am free in my mind, which he can never be. He will always have to live with what he has done. He is more prisoner than I am. As I close my routine with a final, graceful split. I pray, but it isn’t myself I pray for. I pray for him. I pray for his sake, that he won’t have the need to kill me.”

After liberation, she understands that there will be doctors to help the survivors repair their physical health. But no one will explain the psychological dimension of recovery. It will be many years before she begins to understand that.

In 1966, Eger is handed a copy of Viktor Frankl’s “’Man’s Search for Meaning” and one particular passage has a profound impact on her:

“Everything can be taken from a man, but one thing: the last of the human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Every moment is a choice. No matter how frustrating or boring or constraining or painful or oppressive our experience, we can always choose how to respond. And finally I begin to understand that too have a choice. This realization will change my life.

But Eger’s post-war interaction with the subject of the Holocaust is extraordinary. In particular, the chapters, Then Hitler Won and Leave a Stone, deal with such immense issues and personal choices, they literally stopped me in my tracks and gasping for breath and I had to stop reading and reflect on things about which I had strong personal convictions, before being able to continue reading.   .

“If we are stuck in the past, we are living in a prison of our own making. Freedom is about choice, about choosing compassion, humor, optimism, intuition, curiosity, and self-expression. And to be free is to live in the present”.

An interviewer noted that she had been able to overcome her past. She said that she hadn’t but she that she had learned to come to terms with it.

The second part of The Choice features stories of Dr Eger’s patients’ transformations through therapy. These too make for engrossing reading and it is fascinating to see how she draws on the knowledge gained through her own experiences, to benefit her patients.

In her own words: “I began to formulate a new relationship with my own trauma. It wasn’t something to silence, suppress, avoid, negate. It was a well I could draw on, a deep source of understanding and intuition about my patients, their pain, and the path to healing.”

“If I understand the whole of my life, it is that sometimes the worst moments in our lives, the moments that set us spinning with ugly desires, that threaten to engulf us with the sheer impossibility of the pain we must endure, are in fact the moments that bring us to understand our worth. It is as if we become aware of ourselves as a bridge between all that has been and all that will be. We become aware of all we have received and what we can choose – or choose not – to perpetuate. Our painful experiences aren’t a liability, they are a gift. They give us perspective and meaning, an opportunity to find our unique purpose and our strength.”

As psychologist Philip Zimbardo writes in his Foreword to The Choice: “Her book is a universal message of hope and possibility to all who are trying to free themselves from pain and suffering. Whether imprisoned by bad marriages, destructive families, or jobs they hate, or imprisoned within the barbed wire of self-limiting beliefs that trap them in their own minds, readers will learn from this book that they can choose to embrace joy and freedom regardless of their circumstances.”

The Choice is a tour de force of non-fiction writing, an important book whose content should in some way or another resonate with everyone who reads it. It is a book that demands to be read more than once.

 

EXCELLENT APARTHEID ERA DEPICTION

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The narrative is superbly and sensitively observed and crafted. It vividly captures the feel of the turbulent days in which it is set. With the focus on family drama within a difficult social setting, detailing their everyday strugglesAchmat Dangor is an award-winning poet and novelist whose titles include Kafka’s Curse (1997) and the 2004 Booker shortlisted title Bitter Fruit. He is a former Chief Executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

His fifth novel is Dikeledi, a complex and moving tale about ordinary life during the height of the Apartheid era. The story it tells follows the lives of a family and particularly the women of various generations, who are named Dikeledi, one is immediately drawn into the characters and the situations in which they find themselves.

There are many novels in which the story line is a bit thin, but the standard of the writing makes up for it in some measure. In Dangor’s book, the writing is top notch and the narrative is brim full of incident.

The South African literary scene of today has many works both of fiction and non-fiction in which life under apartheid are key features. In Dikeledi this reality is cleverly placed in the experience of the Tau family. The effect of apartheid on much of their daily lives is interspersed among the drama of the family’s relationships and their individual struggles for identity.

Some readers might find the time-frame and geographical toing and froing between the various Dikeledis and a bit of editorial license here and there by the author a bit confusing. The story is so jam-packed with detail that at times it curbs the flow somewhat.

But these reservation aside, Dikeledi’s central threads are strong, thought-provoking and pertinent and its evocation of an era past makes for a really good read.

 

 

 

50 SHADES OF HEAT

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Ishay Govender-Ypma is a journalist, writer and cook based in Cape Town. She grew up on the ambrosial, sometimes hellfire curries of KwaZulu-Natal and quickly embraced spiced dishes of all kinds.

Her new book, CURRY – Stories & Recipes across South Africa, explores the fascinating story of South African curry. In it Ishay features almost 90 recipes from 60 cooks and food experts across the nation.

Ishay avers that “the Durban curries of her childhood, though a proud and prominent part of South African food culture, are not the defining curries of this land.” She didn’t take the easy way out in seeking recipes for inclusion in this book, instead she and her husband took to the road, travelling across the breadth of nine provinces. On the trip, both the dish and the heart of our people revealed itself to her.

“It became increasingly clear that a recipe shared without the context of a person’s life would be lost on me, the reader and the interviewee. While there are a handful of well-recognised chefs here, the majority are home cooks who were elected and suggested to me by their communities.”

CURRY is not an ordinary cookbook. For a start, Ishay’s Introduction is a marvellous and important discourse on the socio-political South African context of the history of curry and its communities. Even if you are not going to tackle any of the recipes, it will add some depth the next time you eat a curry locally. And with each provider of recipes, there is a personal back-story, adding authenticity and a setting to the dishes they share with the reader.

A plus, not common to all cookbooks, is that all the ingredients for the recipes should be readily available at your local supermarket.

Is Durban curry the real thing for you? Or maybe it’s the Cape Malay curry that gets your taste buds going? If that’s the limit of your local curry experience, you are in for a treat…

As Ishay says: “And I learned that profiling a South African curry as a single entity is a futile task. It’s as complex and interesting as the many people who make up our land”

So delve into CURRY’S   regional nuances of the delicious diversity that is South African curry – I’m sure that you will agree that in more ways than one, variety is the spice of life.

 

WHERE THE WILD THINGS WERE

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Many people may be unaware of the threats that endanger the sources of the food they eat. Some key factors threatening food supply are the effects of climate change and the destruction of natural habit and the fact that many animals face extinction

Some blissfully consume without giving any thought as to where the food they eat comes from and whether or not there is a limitless supply of it. Globally, the impact of an ever-increasing consumer demand for cheap meat is devastating.

Philip Lymbery’s new book, Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were, is an eye-opening and frightening examination of the impact of industrial farming on the environment. In it Lymbery highlights iconic species and asks what would happen to them if we don’t change some of the ways we farm.

Lymbery is chief executive of leading international farm animal welfare organisation, Compassion in World Farming and a Visiting Professor at the University of Windsor.

He has played a leading role in many animal welfare reforms, including Europe-wide bans on veal crates for calves and barren battery cages for laying hens.

Described as one of the food industry’s most influential people, he has led Compassion’s engagement work with over 700 food companies worldwide, leading to real improvements in the lives of over three quarters of a billion farm animals every year.

Lymbery’s book, Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat was one of the Times Writers’ Books of the Year and was cited by the Mail on Sunday as a compelling game-changer. It surveyed the effects of industrial livestock production and industrial fish farming around the world

He believes it completely wrong that livestock need to be factory-farmed in sheds and fed one third of the world’s grain so that they grow as big and fast as possible. “There’s already enough food for everybody,” he maintains, as more than half the world’s food rots, is dumped in landfill, or feeds ‘imprisoned’ animals.

We are wrongly led to accept that squeezing animals into factory farms and cultivating crops in vast, chemical-soaked prairies is a necessary evil and an efficient means of providing for an ever expanding global population, while leaving land free for wildlife

If anything can provide an alarming wake-up call, reading Philip Lymbery’s Dead Zone will certainly be able to do the trick.

He takes us to the Gulf of Mexico where we discover what a Dead Zone is: “about 15 miles out, I was looking at something that resembled a construction site. All around me were oil rigs. It was blistering hot and the sea was eerily quiet. I’d heard a lot about this place in the media: somewhere out to sea where nothing lives. An expanse of water so polluted that nearly all the oxygen is gone. They exist all over the world, but the Gulf of Mexico one is the worst. As a dead zone spreads, some bottom-dwelling fish are forced to the surface, where they are vulnerable to predators; and the rest just die.” As a bottom-fish, shrimp take a particularly heavy hit.

In the book, we encounter the Elephant, neither the African nor the Asian, but the lesser-known Sumatran Elephant (which like the Indian, is a subspecies of the Asian) ; the Barn Owl whose numbers like other farm birds in Europe have dwindled dramatically; the majestic American Bison (also known as the American Buffalo); the Red Junglefowl, the primary progenitor of the domestic chicken; The White Stork, one of Poland’s best-loved wildlife treasures; The Water vole,  Britain’s fastest declining wild mammal; the Peregrine is a bird that is a fearless hunter that catches its prey on the wing. The island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel is a prime site for seeing them; It is also the site of an amazing experiment: the very first reintroduction of a Bumblebee, which were officially declared extinct in Great Britain in 2000; the iconic Jaguar is a big cat and the largest feline species in the Americas; Penguins from Robben Island in Cape Town; the Marine Iguana also known as the Galapagos Marine Iguana and lastly, the Nightingale, the numbers of which have declined by 43%.on Great Britain.

Be warned, the sections of Dead Zone where Lymbery discusses ‘industrial farming’ are “not for sensitive readers”. The topic is depressing and makes for jaw-dropping, harrowing, horrific reading. I hope that we don’t practice the extremes of industrial farming in South Africa.

The book includes this powerful appeal from Lymbery: “Helping to revive a living countryside can be as easy as choosing to eat less and better meat, milk and eggs from pasture-fed free-range or organic animals. Through our food choices three times a day, we can support the best animal welfare and bring landscapes to life.”

Dead Zone is well conceived and a work whose subject matter is of significance to everyone on this planet. Although much of the book is necessarily ‘quite serious stuff’, I found the opportunity to learn about creatures less familiar particularly rewarding.

Philip Lymbery has superbly manged to balance imparting much that is informative, with engaging personal and charming anecdotes. This excellent book provides for a read that is enjoyable, informative and important at the same time.

 

DEM BONES….

 

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Normally a book written by a paleoanthropologist wouldn’t sound like a gripping read.

But Lee Berger’s new book, Almost Human, is as exciting as any work by a master writer of thrillers. And Part of Berger’s skills are his ability to write about his discipline in language approachable to the layman.

I am sure he is familiar with these lyrics from an old children’s song, Dem Bones:

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, Now shake dem skeleton bones! The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone, The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone, The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone, Now shake dem skeleton bones!

On the morning of 15 August 2008, Berger, his young son Matt and Job Kibii from Kenya were surveying a new fossil site in the world famous Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg. It was a typical winter’s morning, with nothing to suggest that a discovery they made would be life-changing.

Matt’s son cried out: “Dad, I found a fossil!” Berger’s eyes focused on the rock, a bone stuck out of it, he recognised it instantly as a clavicle. He turned the rock over, there was a hominin canine tooth and part of the jaw.

“Matt said I cursed. I don’t remember. Whatever I said or did, I knew for sure that both his life and mine were about to change forever.”

This happenstance discovery set off a chain of exploration, scientific research and culminated in the announcement of Homo naledi, an extinct species of hominin, which anthropologists have assigned to the genus Homo.

In 2017, however, the fossils were dated to between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago, long after much larger-brained and more modern-looking hominins had appeared. The research team therefore believes that Homo naledi is not a direct ancestor of modern humans, although it is probably an offshoot within the genus Homo.

The process of discovery by Lee Berger and his team is an exciting, often moving, tale of persistence, bravery, belief, and scientific research.

The most emotionally engaging parts of Almost Human are those where scientists were recruited to conduct the underground exploration and recovery of bones from underground caves. These individuals not only had to have the right qualifications and experience, but they also had to be slimly built to squeeze through the extremely narrow approaches to the area where the bones were. These intrepid women were dubbed Underground Astronauts, and their endeavours are every bit as pioneering and courageous as their airborne contemporaries.

“21 days after setting foot at Rising Star, this team of scientists, students, and volunteers had accomplished something remarkable. Together we had recovered more than 1.300 individually numbered fossil hominin remains, an unprecedented haul by any standard, far exceeding the number discovered at any single site in Africa.”

If you have done the Adventure Tour at the Cango Caves and found parts of the experience adrenalin-pumpingly frightening, fasten your safety-belts…..

This is really gripping stuff and many a reader will be forgiven for shedding a tear of joy and relief when the Underground Astronauts surface after their first journey underground, I know I did.

One of the major achievements of the book is the easy readability of Berger’s writing. What could easily have been a difficult journey through paleoanthropological terminology is avoided by Berger wearing one of his professorial hats, Public Understanding of Science. As a result Almost Human, although often quite technical, is never a difficult read.

The origin of humankind is a fascinating study and bound to result in differences of opinion and even controversy. The work of paleoanthropologists like Berger is ongoing and what an intriguing prospect is the anticipation of what might yet be discovered

“Archaeologists have assumed that all the people who took these great steps in human development were direct ancestors of modern Homo sapiens – that human evolution happened in a single straight line. But how do we know?”

Berger says that we are only at the beginning stages of learning about this remarkable species. New questions need to be asked and old assumptions questioned. So much of Africa lies almost entirely unexplored.

And like many good ‘thrillers’, Almost Human ends with a climactic sentence but you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is.

I read the book at one sitting and finished it hungry for more. It is an incredibly rewarding read.

Lee Berger is Research Professor in Human Origins and the Public Understanding of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. He is the author of more than 200 scholarly and popular works. His research has been featured three times on the cover of Science and has been named among the top 100 science stories of the year by Time, Scientific American and Discover magazine on numerous occasions. Berger has appeared on many television documentaries. He is best known for his discovery of Australopithecus sediba and more recently Homo naledi.