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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: Saga Land by Richard Fidler & Kári Gíslason

Monday, April 23, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

A gripping blend of family mystery, contemporary stories and the beautiful and bloody Viking tales, set against the starkly stunning landscape of Iceland. Broadcaster Richard Fidler and author Kari Gíslason are good friends. They share a deep attachment to the sagas of Iceland - the true stories of the first Viking families who settled on that remote island in the Middle Ages.These are tales of blood feuds, of dangerous women, and people who are compelled to kill the ones they love the most. The sagas are among the greatest stories ever written, but the identity of their authors is largely unknown. Together, Richard and Kari travel across Iceland, to the places where the sagas unfolded a thousand years ago. They cross fields, streams and fjords to immerse themselves in the folklore of this fiercely beautiful island. And there is another mission: to resolve a longstanding family mystery: a gift from Kari's Icelandic father that might connect him to the greatest of the saga authors.


My Thoughts:


I loved Richard Fidler’s earlier book, Ghost Empire, about his journey to Constantinople with his son, which entwined travel writing with history and legend in a very personable and beguiling way. And I’ve been interested in Iceland and its astonishing sagas for quite some time. So, I was keen to read Saga Land from the second I heard about it.

Subtitled ‘The Island Of Stories at the Edge of the World’, Saga Land is the story of how ABC broadcaster Richard Fidler became friends with one of his guests, the author and academic Kári Gíslason. After his interview on Richard’s show ‘Conversations’, the two stood chatting by the lift for more than an hour. They shared a deep interest in the sagas of Iceland – ‘true tales … of blood feuds … dangerous women, and people who are compelled to kill the ones they love the most,’ as the blurb describes these ancient and eerie stories.

Eventually Richard and Kári travelled together to Iceland, to explore the landscape and history and folklore of this bare fierce country. Kári was born in Iceland, but did not know his father or his father’s other family until he was an adult. So, for him, the journey is a homecoming and a chance to explore his ancestral roots. For Richard, it’s an adventure and a discovery.

Like Ghost Empire, the book weaves together memoir, travelogue, history and mythology, which is one of my favourite types of books to read. The memoir and travelogue sections of the book feel real and warm and intimate. The recountings of the ancient sagas are fresh and clear and simple, bringing them back to powerful and immediate life. And the history of Iceland is bloody and fascinating. I also really loved the photographs included in the book.

Usually I read non-fiction in small bites, squeezed in between my reading of novels. I read Saga Land in one big gulp. It was utterly mesmerising.

You can read my review of Ghost Empire here.
And you can listen to Richard Fidler's most recent intereview with me here.

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

BOOK REVIEW: Advice on Love and Life from Someone Who’s Been There by Cheryl Strayed

Friday, March 02, 2018

 


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice.

Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond. Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.


My Thoughts:

This is a difficult book to review, because it is such a difficult book to categorise. Basically it's a collection of columns written by the American writer Cheryl Strayed under the pseudonym Sugar. The columns are written in response to people with problems who wrote to ‘Dear Sugar’ for advice. In other words, Sugar is an Agony Aunt.

(In a complete aside, I was so fascinated by the history of the term ‘agony aunt’ I had to go and look it up. Did you know the first newspaper to offer life advice to readers was The Athenian Gazette, in 1691? And that John Dunton, the man who established it, once advised a woman afraid of a lonely old age to get herself down to the docks and hook up with a sex-starved sailor? And that Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was the agony uncle for his magazine, The Review, in 1704? And that the term itself was not used until the 1950s? No, neither did I …)

Cheryl Strayed wrote the ‘Dear Sugar’ advice column for the online literary magazine The Rumpus from 2010 to 2012, and garnered a strong following. I first heard about her when her advice to a young wanna-be author, ‘Write Like a Motherfucker’, made the rounds on the internet. I thought it was a brilliant piece of writing, and loved that she quoted Emily Dickinson, one of my favourite poets. Then, of course, her memoir Wild was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and released in December 2014. Suddenly Cheryl Strayed seemed everywhere.

Each of the columns in Tiny Beautiful Things are indeed advice offered in response to true-life dilemmas sent in by readers, but they are not at all like what I used to read in the back of Dolly when I was a naïve teenager. Firstly, the tone is warm, intimate and startlingly frank, as if the reader and Sugar had been friends for years and years. She shares stories from her own difficult past, including the death of her mother, her marriage breakup, her infidelities, and struggles with drug addiction. Some stories are funny. Most are poignant and even heart-breaking. I have been where you are, she seems to say. I know what is hurting you.

Here is one of my favourite quotes from the book:

“Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can't cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It's just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal.”

Here is another:

“You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love.”

Tiny Beautiful Things is indeed beautiful, but not, I think, tiny. It’s big-hearted and big-thinking and warm and wise and sad all at once.

You might also be interested in my review of Elizabeth Gilbert's book The Signature of All Things. 

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

BOOK REVIEW: A Sky Full of Birds by Matt Merritt

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads)

Britain is a nation of bird-lovers. However, few of us fully appreciate the sheer scale, variety and drama of our avian life. From city-centre hunters to vast flocks straight out of the Arctic wilderness, much-loved dawn songsters to the exotic invaders of supermarket car parks, a host of remarkable wildlife spectacles are waiting to be discovered right outside our front doors.

In A Sky Full of Birds, poet and nature writer Matt Merritt shares his passion for birdwatching by taking us to some of the great avian gatherings that occur around the British isles – from ravens in Anglesey and raptors on the Wirral, to Kent nightingales and Scottish capercallies. By turns lyrical, informative and entertaining, he shows how natural miracles can be found all around us, if only we know where to look for them.


My Thoughts:

Matt Merritt is a poet and the editor of Bird Watching magazine, and in this beautiful book he brings together his love of words and birds into one beautiful package.

I’ve always liked birds too. I do my best to tell magpies apart from currawongs, and I’d love to see an owl in flight one day. I also love the collective nouns for birds – murders of crows, murmurations of starlings and exaltations of larks, for example.

Matt Merritt writes with simple and lyrical elegance of his own fascination with gatherings of birds, weaving in personal experience with quotations from a 10th century Anglo-Saxon poem about wild swans, Shakespeare, Samuel Coleridge and other writers and poets.

Each chapter is a self-contained essay about a different kind of bird, so it’s an easy book to pick up and read and then put down and leave for a while. A lovely addition to my collection of books about the natural world.

If you like reading interesting non-fiction books about nature, you might also like Rising Ground by Phillip Marsden.

Please leave a comment 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: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Wednesday, August 30, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.

Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.

Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.

My Thoughts:

A memoir about life as a female boffin, melded with fascinating facts about trees and botany, this is an unusual but very readable book. Both funny and poignant, the book charts Hope Jahren’s journey through the cut-throat world of scientists, and her joy in the secret world of trees. She charts her friendships and love affairs, her battle with bi-polar disorder, her muddles and mistakes, and her profound insights into the natural world. Her writing is at times lyrical, and her enthusiasm for botany is infectious. A clever, quirky, and informative book about why we should love and protect the world’s trees.

You might interested in my review of another non-fiction, beautiful book, The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane.

Please remember to leave a comment - I'm interested in your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose

Friday, March 24, 2017




BLURB:


In her study of the married couple as the smallest political unit, Phyllis Rose uses as examples the marriages of five Victorian writers who wrote about their own lives with unusual candor.The couples are John Ruskin and Effie Gray; Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh; John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor; George Eliot and G. H. Lewes; Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth.


MY THOUGHTS:


A really interesting look at the marriages of five different sets of men and women who lived in Victorian times. Most were writers and intellectuals, and so their lives were not the norm for the times; nonetheless these brief biographies show that Victorian society was not quite as rigidly stratified and straitlaced as most people think. 


The couples whose lives are examined here are John Ruskin and Effie Gray; Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh; John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor; George Eliot and G. H. Lewes; Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth. I learnt something new about them all, and about the cultural institution of marriage. 



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