x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Book reviews

Rupert Wright, author of Take Me to the Source: In Search of Water, reviews a selection of travel books.

Notes from Walnut Tree Farm Roger Deakin Hamish Hamilton US$15 (Dh55) By rights, nature writing should be extinct in the 21st century, cut down like much of the Amazon rainforest. Who needs trees when you can have skyscrapers and traffic jams? However, the genre is undergoing a renaissance and Roger Deakin is probably the most revered practitioner, particularly since his unexpected death two years ago at the age of 63.

A filmmaker and environmentalist, who was one of the founders of Friends of the Earth, he turned to writing relatively late in life and travelled widely. His final work, Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, is a selection of thoughts and observations jotted down during the last six years of his life. Deakin is obsessed with the birds and animals that live near his farmhouse in Suffolk; he swims in the moat, admires the trees and sleeps outdoors. He also writes about his search for the first apple in Kyrgyzstan, father of all the apples in the world.

"The great antidote to racism is travel. If only people would travel more adventurously, they would soon learn the deep respect for other peoples and cultures of the true traveller," he writes. He goes travelling with Robert Macfarlane to try to find the exact site of the fictional hide in Rogue Male, Geoffrey Household's classic thriller. They find a suitable location and camp for the night. "Pudding was to have been the banana we roasted on the embers, but Rob stepped on it, perhaps because I had earlier made use of it as a demonstration model in a short impromptu lecture on male circumcision in aboriginal initiation ceremonies." This may not be a book to devour at one sitting, but a work to savour by a wood fire. It is a reminder of the wonder of nature and the importance of observation.

The Last Jews of Kerala Edna Fernandes Portobello Books $26 (Dh96) Ask any Indian in Abu Dhabi where they are from, and the majority will reply: "Kerala." In order to understand a little more of this part of the west coast of India, and to give myself something to discuss with my favourite taxi drivers, I seized upon this book with interest.

The premise is intriguing. There has been a community of Jews around Cochin for more than 1,000 years. They mixed with Hindus, Muslims and Christians, and built temples and synagogues. There are now only about 50 Jews left, and soon, within a generation, there will be no Jews left in Kerala. What has happened to them? Genocide? Illness? No. According to Edna Fernandes, it is a tale of apartheid that has condemned them to extinction. The two communities of Jews, one pale-skinned, the other dark, refused to intermarry. There are now only burials and no births.

Ultimately though, I suspect the real answer is more prosaic. Once the opportunity came to move to Israel, the majority took it and caught the first boat or plane to Jerusalem, where they have settled. It is they who grew the first roses in the Negev and made the desert bloom. This book would have made a super feature in a magazine. Ms Fernandes pads out her tale with elaborate descriptions and gives even the smallest encounter a consideration that it probably doesn't deserve. For example, she makes much of the fact that the community's elder is rude to her, which is surprising because she is pregnant. I'm sure that her pregnancy was very important to her but I'm not convinced that it is interesting to anybody else outside her family. However, my taxi driver, to whom I donated my copy, appears to be enjoying it very much.

Africa Richard Dowden Portobello Books $38 (Dh141) Richard Dowden first visited Africa in 1971, fell in love with a beautiful Ugandan woman, and has returned on a regular basis ever since, reporting for The Times, The Independent and The Economist. He is now director of the Royal African Society. To distil almost 40 years of experience and reportage must have seemed a daunting task and the result is a thrilling read, for he has the benefit of hindsight and perspective. For example, he first encounters Robert Mugabe in Notting Hill Gate in London in 1976, when neither Mugabe was leader of Zimbabwe nor Notting Hill a cool place to live.

Dowden is not impressed by Bob Geldof or Bono - the former gets one mention, the latter none - nor by the World Bank or the IMF. "They applied formulas they imagined were universal, rarely giving a thought to the social or political implications of what they were doing," he writes. Dowden clearly loves the place but has not been driven mad by it - what the French call les fous d'Afrique - and is neither cynical nor shrill. What he celebrates is the warmth and humanity of Africa.

Those looking for the romance or exoticism may be disappointed for its tone is like a history textbook, interspersed with meetings with important people - but it is no less valuable for that. People who want the Africa of their imagination should turn to Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun; a work by a more gifted writer but a less objective observer. There are moments of drama in Dowden's Africa. For example, he recalls being shaken down at the end of a gunbarrel by a group of US soldiers in Somalia. Dryly, he comments: "That was the only time I was ever assaulted in Africa".

Rupert Wright is the author of Take Me to the Source: In Search of Water published by Harvill Secker.