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Geographical’s Books of the Year 2016

Geographical’s Books of the Year 2016 Morrowlight
01 Dec
With Christmas just round the corner, we present a round-up of Geographical’s top literary picks of 2016, ideal gifts for the geographers in your gift lists

It’s been another busy year in the publishing world, with the Geographical offices packed to bursting with tomes on issues from across the geographical spectrum – from maps to Mongols, lions to landscapes. As we enter the festive season, and thoughts turn to mince pies and mulled wine, we reflect on our top books of 2016, to help find that perfect Christmas gift for the geographer in your life!

LIONS IN THE BALANCE: Man-Eaters, Manes, and Men with Guns
by Craig Packer

Lions in the BalanceWe can all agree that safeguarding the future of lions is a splendid idea. There is likely to be less concord when it comes to how this vital goal might be achieved. Few figures have made a more significant, if sometimes controversial, contribution to the debate than Craig Packer. Packer’s credentials as a ‘lion expert’ are hugely impressive. He has spent decades researching the subject, published widely, guided dozens of graduate students to their PhDs, and his knowledge of (and affection for) the Serengeti and surrounding regions appears to be boundless.

This candid volume is sure to divide opinion but it is far more than a chronicle of Packer’s campaigns. There are also dozens of surprising facts about the book’s heroes – the lions – and measured commentary on a host of complex issues: the way Tanzanian rural populations think of the wild creatures in their midst, the pros and cons of fencing in wilderness areas, and a sustained effort to recognise the ‘contrast between romantic fantasies and harsh realities.’ The structure is sometimes chaotic and the lack of an index is frustrating but, goodness, the book will make you think.

Click here to order Lions in the Balance via Amazon

THE MAPMAKERS’ WORLD: A Cultural History of the European World Map
by Marjo T Nurminen

mapmakers worldEuropeans’ grasp of world geography envolved in fits and starts and Nurminen gives back-room boys like the brilliant German mathematician and astronomer Petrus Apianus and the cosmographer Gemma Frisius several pages of well-deserved acclaim for pioneering work that opened the way for the Flemish cobbler’s son Gerard Mercator, who went on to ‘invent’ the atlas and to devise a world projection that is still in use today.

The last few years have produced a rich harvest of map books, so newcomers have to stand tall to win notice. The Mapmakers’ World delivers an ambitious thesis with style. Paper and printing are superb, and the enormous number of colour illustrations make this a many-layered work that includes rarely seen portraits of leading mapmakers, exquisite enlargements of map detail and expositions on the evolution of map-making techniques. I enjoyed being able to compare a medieval cosmography showing a pair of angels rotating the machina mundi using hand-cranks with the complex armillary sphere some 200 pages later by Apianus. This magnificent book is a monument to the effort and ingenuity that Europeans have devoted to understanding the wider world, a quest continuing to this day, and one that still relies on maps.

Click here to order The Mapmakers’ World via Amazon

THE EGYPTIANS: A Radical Story
by Jack Shenker

the egyptiansJack Shenker makes no secret of how much he disliked Mubarak’s regime. Economic policies led to the ‘fire sale of Egypt’s assets’ and the ‘deep immiseration of the majority of Egypt’s citizens.’
While a tiny elite made hay, there was an ‘assault on the rural poor’ and the whole process of ‘structural adjustment’ could ‘only ever be implemented’ with the help of ‘state violence’. Egypt found itself ‘stuck in the present tense’, forbidden from imagining a different or better future. An entire generation was informed that, ‘Rule was for the patriarch, and politics, change and defiance were not for the likes of them.’

Shenker confesses that, as a journalist on the ground, ‘I often found it hard to articulate the size and shape of Mubarakism, the depth of its toxicity.’

Click here to order The Egyptians via Amazon

THROWING ROCKS AT THE GOOGLE BUS: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity
by Douglas Rushkoff

throwing rocks at the google busRushkoff may be whistling an old tune, but he makes quite an impression by applying his critique to the shiny new world of digital technology. After all, the internet was supposed to be so very different. The idealists hoped that it would be rooted in ‘decentralized connectivity and ad hoc social activity’. The ‘college dorm-room experiment’ was supposed to be the seedbed of an ‘equally distributed market-place’ and an endlessly creative ‘people-driven economy’.

Regrettably, ‘instead of getting more varieties of human expression and interaction we pushed for more market-friendly predictability.’ In other words, if you were successful you began to play by the old rules, most especially that ‘growth was king’. Just look at Twitter, says Rushkoff. It didn’t cost much to create or maintain and it could have jogged along happily in a way that kept employees paid decently and customers satisfied. It did not require massive capital investment and yet it became a ‘publicly traded, multibillion-dollar company’ without adding anything of inherent value. It was ‘sacrificed... to the singular pursuit of growth.’

Click here to order Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus via Amazon

INCARNATIONS: India in 50 Lives
by Sunil Khilnani

incarnations‘India’s history,’ writes Sunil Khilnani, ‘is a curiously unpopulated place… As usually told, it has dynasties, epochs, religions and castes – but not many individuals.’ Khilnani’s witty and wide-ranging book goes a long way towards correcting this bias The author has selected 50 figures – some iconic, others neglected – who, over 2,500 years, helped to shape the subcontinent’s mesmerising story.

During his research, Khilnani identified an ‘absurd gap between the superhero guises that some figures are forced to don and the reality of what they did, thought or said. This volume eschews both hagiography and demonisation and, while highly opinionated, is rooted in the facts. It makes no apology for wanting to ‘complicate not just the stories Indians like to tell themselves, but also the stories the world tells about us – and about itself.’

Click here to order Incarnations via Amazon

THE LADY AND THE GENERALS: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Freedom
by Peter Popham

the lady and the generalsWho is the real Aung San Suu Kyi? Despite the fact it’s hard to mention Myanmar without including her name in the same breath, it’s a far more complex question than we might otherwise think.

As Peter Popham notes in his latest work: ‘As long as Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, the point of her was easily grasped... little was demanded of her except resistance.’ In those many years when she was most conspicuous by her absence, her infamous face, with its calm yet determined features, passed from martyr to cult hero. Her enforced silence manifested qualities and characteristics amongst her loyal following based on no more than unconfirmed scraps of information and hearsay. Were she ever to follow in her father’s footsteps and assume the mantle of national leader, they told each other, she would be strong, brave, moral, and compassionate. Why else had they spent so many years worshipping her?

Click here to order The Lady and the Generals via Amazon

THE MAKING OF INDIA: The Untold Story of British Enterprise
by Kartar Lalvani

the making of indiaKartar Lalvani would like everyone, Britons and Indians alike, to ‘acknowledge the positive aspects of the colonial period.’ He does not deny the exploitative excesses of the British presence in India but he also cherishes the ‘lasting legacy we inherited’, not least a ‘liberalism’ that ‘was high minded and enduring in its benefaction.’ If the two nations want a shared future based on ‘partnership, equality and friendship’ they must jettison the ‘baggage of a purely negative and wasteful interpretation of history.’ It is high time, Lalvani announces, ‘to give credit where credit is due.’

Lalvani is well placed to do the sums. He describes himself as ‘a patriotic Brit while also very much Indian.’ He was born in Karachi in 1931, first came to England in 1956 to further his studies, and feels ‘equally at home in both countries.’ He readily admits that, had he been old enough at the time, he would have joined the struggle for independence because of the logic of self-determination. Nonetheless, it saddens him that, over five decades, he has hardly ever heard a ‘Briton speak about the positive legacy of British rule in India.’

Click here to order The Making of India via Amazon

PINPOINT: How GPS is Changing Our World
by Greg Milner

pinpointFor good or ill, GPS ‘has become our heartbeat.’ Milner applauds the opportunities it presents, as well as the scientific ingenuity that created it, but has concerns about ‘what its doing to our culture, our technology, and our brains.’

Across all platforms, there are as many as five billion devices able to receive the signals. The system is also ‘so potentially invasive that it forces us to reconsider cherished notions of privacy.’ Employers can keep tabs on their workers, suspects can be tracked by the cops, and serious ethical and legal quandaries arise. Milner has put in the hours: interviewing the pioneers, poring over psychological studies, and wrestling with thorny issues. Some of the claims about how GPS ‘may fundamentally change us as human beings’ seem inflated, but the book is a useful starting point for discussion.

Click here to order Pinpoint via Amazon

HALF-EARTH: Our Planet’s Fight for Life
by Edward O Wilson

half earthWhen Harvard conservation biologist Edward Wilson looks you in the eye and asks the simple question ‘Are you doing enough to safeguard the planet’s biodiversity?’ most of us would struggle for an answer Yet this is the gauntlet he throws leaders of nations, businesses, teachers and citizens of the world in his new, important work Half-Earth.

Wilson is a good person to ask the question. His deep interest in nature, especially ants, began at an early age and for 60 years this octogenarian naturalist has been at the forefront of field research with a library of significant books to his name. Respected internationally as the ‘father of biodiversity’ he has witnessed first-hand global habitat loss and the impact this is having on the estimated eight million species of the world, of which only two million have been named. Wilson confirms life-forms on Earth remain largely unknown to science and those we do know – the vertebrates and the plants – are declining at a rapid rate.

In short, our biosphere, the thin band of life around the planet, is more damaged than we know: we need a bold, new plan.

Click here to order Half-Earth via Amazon

THE HISTORY OF CENTRAL ASIA: The Age of Islam and the Mongols
by Christoph Baumer

history of central asiaGenghis Khan and the Mongol horde’s activities are widely known but not always in detail. What dynasties did they sweep away on their destructive paths of pillage and conquest? Many of the dynasties they conquered were under the influence of Islam. Yet in their turn, these Muslims had overcome Sogdian princedom resistance in the 9th century. Central Asian history can be extremely confusing for the non-specialist.

Into this Central Asian complexity and confusion steps Dr Christoph Baumer with a masterly third installment in his four-volume series on Central Asia covering the Age of Islam and the Mongols. With his consummate academic and archaeological professionalism, Baumer cuts through the historical smokescreen and gives a detailed and authoritative account appropriate for both scholar and layman alike.

Click here to order The History of Central Asia via Amazon

LINES IN THE ICE: Exploring the Roof of the World
by Philip Hatfield

lines in the iceLines in the Ice has many wonderful stories to tell. Some will provoke admiration: the exploits, for example, of the unsung British Arctic Air Route Expedition during the early 1930s. Sponsored by the RGS, this vital mission risked considerable danger to gather data about Greenland’s coast and plateau to allow aircraft to safely traverse the northernmost skies.

Hatfield’s well-researched and handsomely illustrated volume should be placed in the hands of anyone who ‘still thinks of the Arctic as a blank space’ with nothing more to offer than ‘spectacular ice formations and dramatic seascapes.’ On the contrary, it has been a contested, dynamic region for a very long time and, as with so many chapters in the annals of exploration, the centuries-long European incursion provokes feelings of both wonderment and regret.

Click here to order Lines in the Ice via Amazon

by Nicholas Crane

the making of the british landscapeCrane’s encyclopaedic and vivid story is deeply enriched by Britain’s diversity. 500 miles of latitude of varying altitude, our three billion-year old geological heritage and biodiversity-rich ‘wildwoods’ create a varied land, attractive to explorers and immigrants. 11,000 miles of coast and 6,000 islands gives additional enormity to our home. The exposed coastal waters of Britain ‘snagged with tide races, ferocious capes, sandbanks, fogs and fickle winds’ challenged those seeking new lands.

Throughout the 12,000-year journey, Crane covers the successive drivers of change with gifted prose. The Mesolithic adventurers and the passion for sacred places, the ‘manic hacking and burning’ of the industrial revolution, fuelled by rich raw materials, the wars and impact of 74,000 tons of bombs and more recently the loss of our 10,000 playing fields. The pace never stops and layers of geography are uncovered on every page. Crane ends on a reassuring note. If we add the urban green space to the countryside, the natural cover in England, Scotland and Wales is between 98 to 99 per cent. But there is a warning about the continuing decline of our wildlife and we have just passed the 400 parts per million for the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Within the book, there is an underlying message that landscape matters because it is our habitat and a reminder for our future guardians: to care about a place you must know its past and the direction it is heading.

Click here to order The Making of the British Landscape via Amazon

Of course, what gift could possibly be better for that special someone than an annual subscription to Geographical Magazine? Just £38 for a whole year!

Julysub 2020

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