After the Ice – Steve Mithen

That evening Lubbock sits with the hunters and their families in the mouth of a large cave that is to be found among limestone crags on the southern side of the lake. Small walls have been built in the cave mouth to keep out the wind that persists throughout their summertime occupation. There is a spectacular northward view across the water to the distant peaks, once snow-capped but now fading silhouettes as the day draws to a close.

An absolute epic of a book, although to be fair, the tagline gives it away: A Global Human History 20,000 to 5000 BC.

I have to admit this was a slog to read, an enjoyable slog to be honest, but still a slog. Mithen has an absolutely mind blowing amount of information from an incredible amount of sources, which he references and sometimes expands upon in the abundant foot notes. But don’t be put off, this is far from a dry thesis of history, he creates a fictional character called John Lubbock, based on a Victorian archaeologist, and sends him travelling around the worlds continents throughout the end of the Ice Age when humans migrated, hunted, and eventually farmed around the world.

Mithen draws the landscape, the flora and fauna, climate and changes to geography and how this affected the relatively small human population that strived to survive in changing, sometime inhospitable and other times completely unknown territories.
Breaking the book down continent by continent, the slog comes from rifling back to the footnotes (which you don’t necessarily have to, but there is more information tucked in there and in fairness to Mithen, he’s taken the time to extract and put them in, if you’re interested enough to read the book, you may as well read it all) but he paints such interesting pictures you can at times see the landscape before you, and you can’t help but feel what it would be like to be his John Lubbock, to travel back to this practically unblemished land, to know you could travel kilometre’s from where you were born and end up somewhere that no human had been before, or had been for thousands of years.

About half way through I wondered if reading this front to back was the right way to go. I had previously dipped in to the America’s section to look at the history of central and south america, but the sections on each continent are obviously fairly large, so you would need to read a section at a time and in the end I just waded through it.

There were a lot of phrases I had no idea about, ‘a sexually dimorphic size differentiation’ anyone? And the same could be said of the considerable list of references and archaeologists mentioned throughout the book, but so they should be, they have done some incredible work to bring the past to life, to help us understand, enjoy and even learn. Which is what I did here.

The parts containing Lubbock keep the book far from dry and certainly fire the imagination, despite what seem harsh, even horrific conditions compared to today, I would love to even spend a day somewhere and sometime where Lubbock travelled, to wake up and look out of a cave, across uninhabited landscapes populated by flora and fauna and to watch how our ancestors lived by their hard earned knowledge and experience, and that made this beast of a book well worth the read.

As this species was absent from the bone collections of Holocene date, it seems likely to have become extinct when global warming altered the landscape, providing the type of moist grass that favours eland, impala and gazelle. When writing in 1997, six years after announcing his discovery of a new species in the journal Nature, Marean thought it was still ‘premature’ to give this small extinct antelope a species name; perhaps it was, but 20,000 years does seem an extraordinarily long time to wait.

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The Piano Tuner – Daniel Mason

In the fleeting seconds of final memory the images that will become Burma are the sun and a woman’s parasol. He has wondered which visions would remain – the Salween’s coursing coffee flow after a storm, the pre-dawn palisades of fishing nets, the glow of ground tumeric, the weep of jungle vines. For months the images trembled in the back of his eyes, at times flaming and fading away like candles, at times fighting to be seen, thrust forward like the goods of jostling bazaar merchants.

A beautifully crafted story, an occupied country, a short study on grand pianos, a slow burning love story, The Piano Tuner is all of these at once, Daniel Mason works magic in painting not just the characters, but a Burma itself that you slowly sink into.

Edgar Drake is requested by the war office to travel to Burma to repair a rare grand piano owned by an army surgeon posted out in the jungle. Edgar accepts, saying goodbye to his beloved wife Katherine and travels from dreary london to the exotic east. His brief focuses more on the owner of the piano, Surgeon-Major Carroll that the piano itself, which Edgar comically points out. Carroll is slowly revealed from dossiers and stories as Edgar draws closer to Burma and almost at the final hurdle, he has to jump into the unknown at the behest of the surgeon, to ensure the piano is repaired.  All the while he is writing back to Katherine of what he is encountering and his feelings towards his mission.

In Burma he meets Khin Myo, who guides him to the surgeon and a slow, languid love story begins. Drake is finally introduced to the piano, repairs it and plays on it as Carroll strives to bring peace to the region using all his diplomatic skills and understanding of local customs. Edgar hangs around after the piano is repaired, unsure why, but not quite willing to leave. He almost without realising develops feelings for Khin Myo, and his letters to Katherine become more infrequent, although she still is his home, steady as it is against the enigmatic and exotic Burmese woman.

In the introduction Sadie Jones points out the comparisons that have been made between the Piano Tuner and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, having not read Heart of Darkness I can’t comment on that, but from what I know of the story, on the surface there is a similarity, but for me what drew me in most was the build up feelings between Edgar and Khin Myo. Edgar is aware of his love of Katherine, the life they have in London he still finds himself drawn to Khin Myo and her shy affection, despite his best intentions not to.

Then, in the final few chapters, Mason superbly, but incredibly jarringly turns what has been a love letter to Burma into a spy thriller, as Edgar is ferried away from danger and learns of an alternative story to the one told to him by Carroll. He refuses to believe the military’s version of events however and tries to head back to his new friends. So cleverly was the turn around I found myself doubting Carroll long after I had finished reading, as well as the relationship between Edgar and Khin Myo, which had caught me throughout the book.

Finishing The Piano Tuner is much like coming out of a tropical jungle I imagine, you have been immersed and drawn in and mesmerised by everything around you, but have come out of the humidity to the cold, clean fresh air, and you feel that something seems missing.
With Burma opening up now Mason’s novel is not just an incredible story but a luxurious advert for a country as enigmatic as Surgeon-Major Carroll.

As they played, a strand of hair broke loose from where it had been tucked beneath the flower. It tickled his lip. He didn’t pull back, but closed his eyes, and moved his face closer so that it traced itself over his cheek as he played, over his lips again, now over the lashes of his eyes.
The music rose faster, then dipped sweetly, softer, and then it ended.
Their hands rested together on the piano. She turned her head slightly, her eyes closed.She said his name, her voice composed only of breath.

The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray – Jorge Amado

The news was in the air, going up on the Lacerda Elevator, travelling along on streetcars to Calcada, by bus to Feira de Santana. Lovely black Paula was breaking up in tears at her tapioca-cake stand, Water-Bray wouldn’t be coming by that afternoon to whisper his well-chosen come-ons to her, peeking into her ample breasts, propositioning her for wicked things, making her laugh.

After reading The Captains of the Sands, The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray seemed almost a bridge from Amado’s earlier novels about Bahia, and Dona Flor and her two husbands. Evoking Bahia with his usual love and care, in the same way he did with Ilheus in his previous novel, Gabriella, Clove and Cinnamon (another one of his well known novels and one of my favourites) there is an injection of humour here, and a warm depiction of the under world of Bahia.

Amado brings Quincas back to life to celebrate his own wake. After walking out on his well to do family, declaring the women ‘vipers’, he spends the last, and happiest years of his life on the streets as a champion drunk. After his first death, his family try to restore him back to the respectable Joaquim Soares da Cunha, but after dressing him up and getting him a coffin, they leave the wake, and his old friends take him off to the sea with his love in celebration of his life.

What makes this different from Dona Flor is that while Vadinho is obviously a ghost, Quincas comes back to life, but in the descriptions, I couldn’t help but wonder if Quincas was actually only alive in the minds of his friends:

Quincas Water-Bray enjoying himself mightily, was trying to trip up the corporal and the black man. He was sticking out his tongue at passersby and tipping his head into doorways for a leer at lovers. With every step he took, he felt like lying down on the street.

The movements seemingly how a corpse would behave if being dragged along the streets by a bunch of drunken men. I’m not sure why I picked up on this and why it stayed with so much, I wasn’t sure if it worked. I wondered if Amado portrayed Quincas this way intentionally, playing with the idea, and evolved it for Dona Flor, or if I’m just way off..probably the latter.

My peculiar musings aside I enjoyed this short. Amado paints all his locations in an almost magical way, they are as much characters as the people that inhabit them and Quincas is someone who finds happiness late in his life (although to be fair, we never seem to learn exactly why he hated his family as much as he did) and lays himself to rest in the way that he wanted, an interesting idea wherever you are in the world.

Quincas didn’t reply. He was breathing in the sea air as one of his hands touched the water and raised a small wake in the waves. Everything was so peaceful as the party began: Maria Clara’s voice, the beauty of the fish stew, the breeze that had become a wind, the moon up in the sky, Quiteria’s whispering.