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BOOK REVIEW: The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks

Monday, April 30, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Some people's lives are entirely their own creations. James Rebanks' isn't. The first son of a shepherd, who was the first son of a shepherd himself, he and his family have lived and worked in and around the Lake District for generations. Their way of life is ordered by the seasons and the work they demand, and has been for hundreds of years. A Viking would understand the work they do: sending the sheep to the fells in the summer and making the hay; the autumn fairs where the flocks are replenished; the gruelling toil of winter when the sheep must be kept alive, and the light-headedness that comes with spring, as the lambs are born and the sheep get ready to return to the fells.


My Thoughts:

James Rebanks’s family have been shepherds in the Lake District for many generations. Growing up on the land, learning his craft at his grandfather’s knee, James has never wanted any other life. His long-ago ancestors would recognise the pattern of his days and seasons, even if they would not understand his Land-Rover or his Twitter feed, for the work of the shepherds on the fells and lake valleys has not changed in centuries. Lambs are born, crows circle, the hay must be harvested, the long snows endured.

A memoir of place as much as of a life, James Rebanks writes with great simplicity and warmth. He is a reader and lover of words as well as a shepherd, and that familiarity with the English language gives his prose a wonderful lilt and rhythm.

Like many people I have always been enchanted by the Lake District because of the great poets and writers that were inspired there – William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome. I made a pilgrimage there a few years ago, and wandered the green hills and tramped through the trees, imagining daffodils dancing and bunny rabbits frisking. I wish I had read this book before I went, as I now have a much deeper and more profound understanding of the landscape – its history, its way of life, and the people who life and work there.

You might also be interested to read my review of A Gift From Brittany: A Memoir of Love and Loss in the French Countryside by Marjorie Price, which I loved.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: A Gift From Brittany: A Memoir of Love and Loss in the French Countryside by Marjorie Price

Friday, December 15, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):


The enchanting memoir of an artist's liberating sojourn in France during the sixties, and the friendship that transformed her life

While in her late twenties, Marjorie Price leaves the comfort of her Chicago suburb to strike out on her own in Paris and hone her artistic talents. Dazzled by everything French, she falls in love with a volatile French painter and they purchase an old farmhouse in the Breton countryside. When Marjorie's seemingly idyllic marriage begins to unravel, she forms a friendship with an elderly peasant woman, Jeanne, who is illiterate, has three cows to her name, and has never left the village. Their differences are staggering yet they forge a friendship that transforms one another's life.


My Thoughts:

I love memoirs about brave adventurous people who move to Italy or France or Spain, and renovate an old house, plant a garden, cook fabulous feasts, fall in love and find themselves. Surely its my Sliding Doors life? Sometimes, when I’m meant to be writing, I look at castles for sale in Scotland instead. In fact, I do so far too often. Lately I’ve been gazing longingly at chateaus in Brittany. The book I am now writing is set there and so I can tell myself it’s research and not procrastination.

I stumbled upon this memoir one day while googling ‘Brittany chateaus for sale’ and, on a whim, I bought it. I’m very glad I did. It’s one of the most beautiful and moving memoirs I’ve ever read, and surprising in a number of ways.

Firstly, even though it’s subtitled ‘A Memoir of Love and Loss’, it is not a story about a woman moving to France, falling in love and living happily ever after. Marjorie Price does marry a Frenchman and they do buy an enchanting derelict farmhouse in Brittany, but her husband turns out to be a charming but controlling misogynist who refuse to allow her to paint or make her own decisions. His domineering behaviour escalates to violence, and Marjorie must find the inner strength to escape him and make a life on her own for herself and her daughter.

Secondly, this is not a contemporary tale. Marjorie left her native USA to travel to France in 1960. Her story is therefore set at a time of huge political and cultural change in the world. The scars inflicted by the Second World War are still deep, and the Vietnam War and the battle for civil rights are cutting new ones. Women’s rights are still being fought for, and Marjorie’s decision to travel on her own to Paris and try to make a life for herself as an artist is seen as shocking and unladylike. So the betrayal of her dreams by a misogynist who thinks women should only support their husband’s careers is just heart-breaking, and her struggle to make her own way doubly poignant.

Lastly, A Gift From Brittany has at its heart the story of an unlikely friendship between women. Marjorie is young, college-educated, American, and a single mother, struggling to make her way as an artist. Her neighbour Jeanne is elderly, illiterate, and lives in a cottage with no running water or plumbing. She has never ridden in a car, eaten in a restaurant, talked on the telephone, or seen the sea. She wears a shapeless black dress and a white cap pinned to her hair, as her ancestors have done for years. Yet she is funny, earthy, and unfailingly kind. She helps and supports Marjorie at every new challenge or crisis, and teaches her much about life and the world – even though she has never travelled more than a few miles from her home.

Jeanne is dead now, and so is her way of her life and all her stories and songs. Yet this memoir captures something of her warmth and wisdom, and gives us a poignant glimpse of an ancient vibrant culture that is now mostly lost. A truly wonderful book.

For another wonderful memoir set in France, you might be interested in my review of Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard.

Please leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Wednesday, November 15, 2017






The Blurb (From Goodreads):

A charming story of Mozart and his pet starling, along with a natural history of the bird.

On May 27th, 1784, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart met a flirtatious little starling who sang (an improved version of!) the theme from his Piano Concerto Number 17 in G to him. Knowing a kindred spirit when he met one, Mozart wrote "That was wonderful" in his journal and took the bird home to be his pet. For three years Mozart and his family enjoyed the uniquely delightful company of the starling until one fitful April when the bird passed away.

In 2013, Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of Crow Planet, rescued her own starling, Carmen, who has become a part of her family. In Mozart's Starling, Haupt explores the unlikely bond between one of history's most controversial characters and one of history's most notoriously disliked birds. Part natural history, part story, Mozart's Starling will delight readers as they learn about language, music, and the secret world of starlings.


My Thoughts: 

I picked up this lovely little hardback at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, which claims to be the biggest bookstore in the world. It certainly seemed so to me! I wandered in it for hours and bought far too many books.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a naturalist and author with several books about birds under her belt. Mozart’s Starling – her fifth – was inspired by a beguiling anecdote about the 18th century composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The story goes that, in 1784, Mozart encountered a playful little starling in a Viennese shop who sang the theme from his Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major. Charmed, he brought the bird home to be his pet. For the next few years, the starling lived with the Mozart family, inspiring and amusing the famous composer.

Apparently, nowadays, starlings are seen as a nuisance. They gather in great squawking flocks, decimate crops, and fight other birds for food and nesting sites. I didn’t know this when I bought the book. All I knew is that starlings sometimes fly together in vast swirling clouds of motion that have been given the glorious name, a ‘murmuration’. I have always wanted to see a murmuration of starlings (I’ve watched a few on Youtube and they are just astonishing), and I love Mozart’s music, and so I bought the book to discover more.

A combination of natural history, biography and memoir (one of my favourite genres to read), Mozart’s Starling not only examines the story of Mozart and his pet bird, but also Lyandra Lynn Haupt’s own experiment with raising a baby starling. Cheeky, charming and clever, Carmen sings and whistles her way into Lyandra’s heart, and, I must say, into mine. 


If you enjoy reading about nature, you might also be interested in my review of Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane. 


Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts. 

BOOK REVIEW: Along the Enchanted Way by William Blacker

Wednesday, August 09, 2017




Along The Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story
by William Blacker


The Blurb (from GoodReads):

When William Blacker first crossed the snow-bound passes of northern Romania, he stumbled upon an almost medieval world. 

There, for many years he lived side by side with the country people, a life ruled by the slow cycle of the seasons, far away from the frantic rush of the modern world. In spring as the pear trees blossomed he ploughed with horses, in summer he scythed the hay meadows and in the freezing winters gathered wood by sleigh from the forest. From sheepfolds harried by wolves, to courting expeditions in the snow, he experienced the traditional way of life to the full, and became accepted into a community who treated him as one of their own. 

But Blacker was also intrigued by the Gypsies, those dark, foot-loose strangers of spell-binding allure who he saw passing through the village. Locals warned him to stay clear but he fell in love and there followed a bitter struggle. Change is now coming to rural Romania, and William Blacker's adventures will soon be part of its history. From his early carefree days tramping the hills of Transylvania, to the book's poignant ending, Along the Enchanted Way transports us back to a magical country world most of us thought had vanished long ago


My Thoughts:

My cousin recommended this book to me. After reading it, she told me, she and a friend felt utterly compelled to visit Romania before it changed too much. 

I can totally understand this. I long to go too now I’ve finished this book.

The author, William Blacker, was in Germany at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Curious to see what lay beyond, he set out exploring and found himself discovering a long-lost world in which the peasants wore linen smocks and leather-wrapped shoes with upturned toes, and mowed their meadows with hand-made scythes. Fascinated by their cheerfulness and simplicity, Blacker ended up staying for almost a decade. 

Along the way he fell in love with a Gypsy girl and found himself drawn into their wild and chaotic lives, and at odds with his old-fashioned Romanian hosts. 

An utterly charming and poignant book that captures a way of life that is already vanishing, as Romania opens up to the west and its rampant materialism and advanced technologies. 


If you love memoirs or books about exotic places, then you must read Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler! Read my review here

Please leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler

Sunday, June 04, 2017

BLURB:

In 2014, Richard Fidler and his son Joe made a journey to Istanbul. Fired by Richard's passion for the rich history of the dazzling Byzantine Empire - centred around the legendary Constantinople - we are swept into some of the most extraordinary tales in history. The clash of civilizations, the fall of empires, the rise of Christianity, revenge, lust, murder. Turbulent stories from the past are brought vividly to life at the same time as a father navigates the unfolding changes in his relationship with his son.

GHOST EMPIRE is a revelation: a beautifully written ode to a lost civilization, and a warmly observed father-son adventure far from home.

MY THOUGHTS:

I love listening to Richard Fidler on the radio. He is always so warm and funny and curious about people, and he has a knack for drawing out the personal and the unique in every story. I have also been increasingly interested in Constantinople (now known as Istanbul), having read several novels set there in recent years. After hearing Richard speak about his book at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year, I bought a copy and finally read it last month. Normally I read non-fiction slowly over a few weeks, reading several novels in between chapters. But Ghost Empire was so engaging and readable, I whizzed through it in just a few nights.

The book combines the personal memoir of a journey Richard and his son Joe made to Istanbul in 2014, with stories from the city’s long and bloody history. Constantinople was built on the foundations of Byzantium in the early 4th century and became the new capital of the Roman empire in 330 AD. From the mid-5th to the mid-13th century, it was the largest, richest and most powerful city in the world, and the guardian of the most sacred relics of Christianity, the Crown of Thorns and the True Cross. 

For almost a thousand years the city was the centre of extraordinary true tales of greed, murder, violence and betrayals, and Richard entwines these stories with anecdotes from his own life and his life-changing journey with his son. The result is utterly fascinating. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller

Saturday, April 15, 2017

BLURB:

The Magician's Book is the story of one reader's long, tumultuous relationship with C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. Enchanted by its fantastic world as a child, prominent critic Laura Miller returns to the series as an adult to uncover the source of these small books' mysterious power by looking at their creator, Clive Staples Lewis. What she discovers is not the familiar, idealized image of the author, but a more interesting and ambiguous truth: Lewis's tragic and troubled childhood, his unconventional love life, and his intense but ultimately doomed friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien.

Finally reclaiming Narnia "for the rest of us," Miller casts the Chronicles as a profoundly literary creation, and the portal to a life-long adventure in books, art, and the imagination.

MY THOUGHTS:

I love books about books, particularly when they weave together a personal story with new insights into a beloved work of literature. The genre is called ‘bibliomemoir’, which is such a great word it makes me want to write one. But which book would I want to write about? 

Like hundreds of thousands of people, when I am asked to name my favourite childhood book, I answer ‘The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe’ by C. S. Lewis. But, much as I’d love to write a bibliomemoir about its profound influence on me and others, I can’t anymore. That’s because this book - The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller – does it so beautifully I could never hope to compare. 

Laura Miller was enchanted by the world of Narnia as a child – as was I and every kindred spirit I know - yet as an adult became aware of the many criticisms levelled against C. S. Lewis. Classism. Racism. Sexism. Ageism. Anachronism. 

So as an adult, she revisits the books and examines them in light of her own life, the life of C.S. Lewis and his friends, and the vast influence – both positive and negative – that Narnia has had on the work of other writers as diverse as Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Franzen and Philip Pullman. 

The result is utterly engrossing and utterly enchanting. It made me want to go and read all the Narnia books again!

BOOK REVIEW: Enemy: A Daughter’s Story by Ruth Clare

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

THE BLURB (from GoodReads):

'I was born into the war still raging inside my father.'


Ruth Clare's father came back from the war a changed man: a violent and controlling parent and a dominating, aggressive husband. Through a childhood of being constantly on guard, with no one to protect her but herself, Ruth learned to be strong and fierce in the face of fear.

After escaping her difficult upbringing, Ruth went on to have children of her own. The challenges of parenting left her desperate for reassurance that she would not repeat her father's behavior. She met with other veterans and began learning about the effects of conscription, military training and post-traumatic stress disorder. The stories Ruth uncovered left her with surprising empathy for the man who caused her so much pain, and renewed her determination to stop the legacy of war passing down to the next generation. 

Weaving a striking personal narrative with a revelatory exploration about the effects of war, Enemy is a bold, compelling and ultimately triumphant memoir from a hugely impressive new Australian writer.


MY THOUGHTS:


I met Ruth Clare at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, and was so intrigued by her story I bought her book – a memoir of growing up with a brutal and domineering father who had been damaged by his experiences in the Vietnam war. 


I’ve always been interested in the way violence done to one generation can warp and cripple the generations to follow, and the difficulties in breaking the cycles of harm. Ruth Clare’s memoir is a searing indictment of the shadow cast by the Vietnam war, and a timely reminder of the imperative to learn from the mistakes of the past.


The most poignant aspect of the novel, for me, was the way Ruth Clare’s mother was broken by her husband’s violence … and the fact that Ruth herself was able to survive and heal, and build a new life for herself. 


A powerful and heart-rending memoir, told with grace and empathy.

BOOK REVIEW: Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place by Philip Marsden

Friday, January 06, 2017




Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place – Philip Marsden


THE BLURB (from GoodReads):


Why do we react so strongly to certain places? Why do layers of mythology build up around particular features in the landscape? 


When Philip Marsden moved to a remote creekside farmhouse in Cornwall, the intensity of his response took him aback. It led him to begin exploring these questions, prompting a journey westwards to Land's End through one of the most fascinating regions of Europe.From the Neolithic ritual landscape of Bodmin Moor to the Arthurian traditions of Tintagel, from the mysterious china-clay country to the granite tors and tombs of the far south-west, Marsden assembles a chronology of our shifting attitudes to place. 


In archives, he uncovers the life and work of other 'topophiles' before him - medieval chroniclers and Tudor topographers, eighteenth-century eighteenth-century antiquarians, post-industrial poets and abstract painters. Drawing also on his own travels overseas, Marsden reveals that the shape of the land lies not just at the heart of our history but of man's perennial struggle to belong on this earth.




MY THOUGHTS:
I love books which take a place or a time or a person or a natural phenomenon, and then uses that as a springboard into a wide-ranging meditation on art, history, science, poetry, or any manner of things. And I have always wanted to go to Cornwall.


So I was interested in Rising Ground as soon as I heard about it. 


Philp Marsden has a degree in anthropology and has written a number of books about his travels in Ethiopia and Russia, as well as numerous essays for The Spectator. He was, however, raised in Cornwall and recently bought a farmhouse on a creek there with his wife and children. The book is not a memoir of the renovation of this old house, though some of his personal experiences are woven into the narrative. It is more about ‘topophilia’, a lovely word which means ‘love of place’, and examines some of the little-known but interesting people of the past who have loved Cornwall and studied it and written and painted about it. 


It’s the sort of book that you can pick up and enjoy, then put down and not pick up again for a few weeks, as each chapter is an essay on a particular aspect of Cornwall. I was particularly interested in the chapters on the standing stones and barrows and graves and other ancient monuments, and on the blind-and-deaf Cornish poet Jack Clemo, who I had never heard of before. 


A really interesting read. 

BOOK REVIEW: A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for his Mother – Jeremy Gavron

Thursday, January 05, 2017


THE BLURB (from GoodReads):


It's 1965, and in Primrose Hill, north London, a beautiful young woman has just gassed herself to death, leaving behind a suicide note, two small children, and an about-to-be-published manuscript: The Captive Wife.

Like Sylvia Plath, who died in eerily similar circumstances two years earlier just two streets away, Hannah Gavron was a writer. But no-one had ever imagined that she might take her own life. Bright, sophisticated, and swept up in the progressive politics of the 1960s, Hannah was a promising academic and the wife of a rising entrepreneur. Surrounded by success, she seemed to live a gilded life.

But there was another side to Hannah, as Jeremy Gavron's searching memoir of his mother reveals. Piecing together t
he events that led to his mother's suicide when he was just four, he discovers that Hannah's success came at a price, , and that the pressures she faced as she carved out her place in a man's world may have contributed to her death. Searching for the mother who was never talked about as he grew up, he discovers letters, diaries, and photos that paint a picture of a brilliant but complex young woman grappling to find an outlet for her creativity, sexuality, and intelligence.



A Woman on the Edge of Time not only documents the too-short life of an extraordinary woman; it is a searching
examination of the suffocating constrictions in place on intelligent, ambitious women in the middle of the twentieth century.



MY THOUGHTS:


In 1965, in Primrose Hill, London, a beautiful and passionate young woman gasses herself to death, leaving behind two small children and an about-to-be-published manuscript of her life’s work …


The woman is Hannah Gavron, and her death is eerily similar to that of Sylvia Plath who killed herself two years earlier and only two streets away. 


Jeremy Gavron, Hannah’s son, was only four when she died and has no memory of her. She was always an aching presence in his life, however, as absences so often are. He wondered about her, but could never talk about it to his father or his brother. When his brother died, however, Jeremy Gavron was so overwhelmed with pain he realised that he was also grieving for his mother. A few months later, Sylvia Plath’s son Nicholas Hughes committed suicide. The similarities between his own life and that of Nicholas Hughes chilled him, and he set out to try and solve the mystery of his mother’s death. 


A Woman on the Edge of Time is therefore a memoir of a woman the author could not remember, an autobiography which reveals little about the author’s life, a true-life detective story about a death in which the murderer was always known. It is also an utterly brilliant book about a woman who could not break out of the cage of her time.


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT: I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK

BOOK REVIEW: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Thursday, March 31, 2016




THE BLURB (from GoodReads)


A New York Times bestseller

Winner of the Costa Book Award and the Samuel Johnson Prize

When Helen Macdonald's father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she'd never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk's fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White's chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself "in the hawk's wild mind to tame her" tested the limits of Macdonald's humanity and changed her life.

Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer's eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.


MY THOUGHTS:

A wonderful meditation on grief, nature and hawks.

The author, Helen Macdonald is a naturalist and research scholar at the University of Cambridge. Hawks have fascinated her ever since she was a small child. When her father dies unexpectedly, she decides to train a goshawk, something she has never done before.

Goshawks are one of the biggest of the hawks, and have a notoriously savage temper. They are difficult to train. Helen Macdonald entwines the story of her own challenging journey with that of the author T.H. White, who wrote about his own struggles in a book called Goshawk, published in 1951. T.H. White is better known for his classic children’s fantasy The Sword in the Stone, which has a remarkable scene in it in which the Wart (the boy who became King Arthur) is turned into a hawk.

The result is utterly fascinating. I learned so much about hawks and falconry, and also about the life of T.H. White, which I did not know about before. The language is cool, precise, and beautiful: “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.” 


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