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M. Hillmann "miles" (leicester, england)
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Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories
Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories
by Simon Winchester
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £25.00

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Colourful stories in historical context, 5 Mar. 2011
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Simon Winchester is a story teller and a romantic - historical context, detail and colour brings this book to life. He dedicates the book to Able Seaman Angus Campbell McIntyre who was shipwrecked in 1942 on the notorious coast of Namibia in the South Atlantic in a failed attempt to rescue survivors from the SS Dunedin who had been similarly shipwrecked. Stories like this abound.

But he paints on a wider canvas to describe the importance of the Atlantic over the years - an ocean that with today's air travel does not have a high profile. For example parliamentary democracy as it is understood today was very much an Atlantic creation. No such institutions arose in Russia or China or Greece. The Icelandic Rock of Laws set the pattern for governance of the rest of the world, mimicked by the Faroe Islands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Britain.

He approaches the Atlantic from all angles, from its early exploration to pirates and the slave trade; from sea battles through the ages to commerce; from the laying of the transatlantic cable and air routes across the ocean to climate change, ocean currents and receding ice cap.

The question of what motivated men to make the dangerous voyage into the Atlantic before America was "discovered" is answered by fish and whales. He makes a convincing case that the Norsemen created settlements in Newfoundland and Labrador between 975 and 1020 AD. The allure of fish, and specifically cod, drew the Vikings and the Basques as well as John Cabot who named Newfoundland before the imperial claims made by Christopher Colombus in 1492.

The technical tribulations of the USS Niagra and HMS Agamemnon in laying 2,500 miles of transatlantic cable in 1857 is ascribed as the most ambitious construction project ever envisaged in the world. The visionary and financier behind the project was Cyrus Field. After only 15 days the cable succumbed to some unknown submarine malady and no further cable was laid until Brunel's Great Eastern in 1866. By 1900 there were 15 cables but then in 1901 Marconi successfully sent the first radio signal across the Atlantic. The "distance in time" across the Atlantic rapidly diminished.

The immense research and colourful stories makes it another of Winchester's compelling books.


The Poisonwood Bible
The Poisonwood Bible
Price: £4.79

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent novel of Americans in Africa, 19 Feb. 2011
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The book starts slowly. I only persevered because of a recommendation ("our book club has rated it as the greatest of all time!"). Its worth persevering. The fascination of the novel hinges on the development of the distinct personalities of the four daughters of a Baptist missionary from when they arrive in the Congo in the late 1950's pre Independence to their adulthood. The father is a dogmatic bigot. The story is told by the ingenious device of the same story told by the mother - Orleanna Price - and each of the daughters in turn and you see the different takes on the same experiences from the different characters. Each daughter turns out very differently.

The novel gathers pace as the Congo gains independence from Belgium in 1960 to become Zaire. The story tackles issues of belief and Christianity and dignity and wisdom of the African culture. It takes the argument between autocratic rule and democracy one step further - the African elders believe not in majority vote but the importance of continuing to thrash out ideas until you get acceptance and buy in by everybody.

It is a stark and realistic Africa that is protrayed with American imperialism at its worst.

It is the understanding and the nuances of characters that make it such a compelling book.


Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness
Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness
by Cass R Sunstein
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Influential Book, 16 Feb. 2011
Nothing new I thought at the beginning. But it is new. It became apparent, not from reading the book, but from the radio and television which kept referring to "Nudging" that the book is currently immensely influential.
The theme is that we humans are not economists basing choice on purely rational principles. People do not have time or the ability for reflective thought on every choice they make. The world is made safer and easier by gut reaction or automatic thought which sets a default option. But such rules of thumb involve bias and anchoring thought in familiar patterns. It encourages the tendency towards the status quo.
So, recognising this, the authors develop the concept of rational paternalism. It is valid to leave people free to choose but to influence their behaviour in order to make their lives longer, healthier and better.
They examine choice architecture and how to design default options involving the path of least resistance; or how to expect people to make errors; how to improve their performance by giving feedback; how to structure complex choices and how to incentivise people.
Where the book begins to make real impact is when it then applies this logic to a number of practical policies. Pension provision, mortgages, the Swedish privatised Social Security, how to increase organ donations, saving the planet and privatising marriage are all examined.
But it is small nudges to social situations that, properly thought through, can have massive consequences. And choice architects can preserve freedom of choice whilst nudging people in a direction that will improve their lives.
An important and stimulating book.


What Does China Think?
What Does China Think?
by Mark Leonard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Authoratative first hand account, 12 Dec. 2010
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This review is from: What Does China Think? (Paperback)
Cheap goods made in China at slave labour rates, huge environmentally catastrophic industrial projects, persecution of Tibetan monks - the common impression of China? Original ideas, raging debate on future direction, and patterns of thought and politics changing almost as quickly as the economy over the last 30 years is a less common impression.

Mark Leonard's quest is to meet and talk to a wide range of leading thinkers, politicians and businessmen from all over China. He provides an insight into their views. What comes across is that the Chinese way is certainly not an imitation of any other development path. It is Mark Leonard's uncovering of the original, innovative thought and his lucid account and interpretation of events in China that makes the book so readable.

One Chinese school of thought is that they cannot afford the luxury of democracy. Maybe if I lived in grinding poverty with famine and disease close by I would put a reliable square meal and shelter before free speech. Louisa, my neice, tells me that even now in her part of China heating in homes is forbidden - there is not enough fuel for heating, you must simply put on more clothes.

Developing countries that have chosen democracy without the rule of law, such as Yugoslavia, Angola, Rwanda and the Lebanon, have resulted in chaos, as populist regimes have exploited ethnic tensions to get their hands on power. On the other hand countries like Singapore, Hong Kong have adopted the rule of law without democracy. They have known nothing but success: their economies are growing steadily; they are attracting investment; they have wiped out corruption and developed strong national identities. The breakup of the Soviet Union after Gorbachev's reforms and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet economy is a heartfelt salutary lesson to the Chinese leadership. Recognising an independent Taiwan is an anathema as it would provide an example other "regions of China" might want to follow.

According to Fang Ning of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences "Democracy in the west is like a fixed - menu restaurant where customers can select the identity of their chef, but have no say in what dishes he chooses to cook for them. Chinese democracy, on the other hand, always involves the same chef - the Communist Party - but the policy dishes which are served up can be chosen "a la carte".

For example Leonard describes the experiments in strengthening the rule of law and consulting the public in Chongqing - a city on the Yangste of 30 million people (bigger than 22 out of the 27 EU states) and growing at 500,000 people per year. There, Li Dianxun, the director of the city government spearheads a process whereby all significant government rulings are subject to popular hearing - in person, on television and on the internet. By 2008, 600 public hearings involving 100,000 citizens had been organised on subjects including compensation to peasants whose land had been requisitioned; on the level of the minimum wage; on the setting of prices for water, electricity, natural gas, roads, education and public health.
The city of Zeguo has taken this consultation process further in deciding how to spend the public works budget. Two hundred and seventy five people, randomly selected from the population, are briefed by the experts on the pros and cons of the building projects. They whittle down the projects and their wish-list is presented to the People's congress which votes the plan through in its entirety.

But it is not just with conventional ideas of power that the Chinese thinkers are concerned. They have studied how the USA has come to symbolise freedom and affluence from the Bill of Rights to Coca Cola, Macdonalds and Hollywood. They are attempting the "China Dream" of three powerful ideas: economic development, political sovereignty and international law.
Economic development was pioneered in the early 1980's with the establishment of the "Special Economic Zone" of Shenzen offering its leaders freedom from government regulation, tax breaks and a licence to pilot new market ideas. In order to access technology and capital they set about attracting investment from abroad. By 1992 half of China's industrial output was generated by private industry from the Special Economic Zones. Since then economic development has accelerated.

Developing countries throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa are encouraged to follow the Chinese model of pursuing economic reforms first and political reforms later. In 2007 the Zambian leader Levy Mwanawasa announced the establishment of a Special Economic Zone in Chambishi with China injecting $800 million into the country. This will provide China with copper, cobalt, tin, uranium and diamonds. A second economic zone will be in Mauritius, a third in Tanzania with others broached in Nigeria, and Liberia. The appeal to the African leaders is that China not only provides much needed investment, but also an alternative for African countries to the IMF western model of development.

Beijing's ascent has already changed the balance of military and economic power and is now changing the world's ideas about politics, economics and order. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Europe and America face a formidable alternative: the Chinese model.

A thought provoking book on a subject certain to have dramatic effects on all of us involved in an increasingly globalised economy


The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves
The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves
by Matt Ridley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Cup Half full approach to human society, 12 Dec. 2010
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Optimism about the development of human society is not a question of temperament or instinct, but proven by evidence. Since 1800 life expectancy has doubled, real income has risen nine times, people are one third better fed, child mortality has dropped by two thirds, life expectancy has increased by one third, many diseases have been virtually eliminated, literacy has become widespread and telephones, flush toilets, refrigerators and bicycles have become ubiquitous. Similar progress has been made since the 1950's as many of us can remember.

But at what cost ask the pessimists? Ridley debunks the conventional wisdoms of deteriorating environment, exponential population growth, greater inequality and social breakdown.

The most fundamental feature of the modern world has been the increasing pace of innovation which outpaces population explosion. But from where does this innovation come? Is it driven by science or the development of intellectual property or government? Ridley attributes it to exchange or trade. It is the ever increasing rate of exchange of goods, services and ideas that causes the ever-increasing rate of innovation.

Ridley maintains that whilst optimism is distinctly unfashionable it is more realistic and borne out by subsequent events than apocalyptical pessimism. And optimism is not callous indifference to suffering. It is the opposite - ambitious optimism is morally mandatory. Because there is so much suffering we should not get in the way of innovation and economic progress. For example Borlaug and his dwarf wheats faced innumerable hurdles to acceptance. But by 1963, 95% of Mexican wheat was Borlaug's variety and wheat yields were 6 times what they previously were. Borlaug then took his new varieties to Egypt, Pakistan and India. The green revolution confounded the Malthus population doomsters. Innovation in genetic modification of food crops, stem cell research and nuclear energy face similar hurdles to acceptance. People do not like technological change but embrace it at the same time.

According to Matt Ridley the key to the great leap forward of homo sapiens from the slow progress of the erectus hominids and Neanderthals, and indeed all other species, was the development of barter. He interprets human society as a product of a long history of evolution through natural selection among cultural rather than genetic variation. Just as sex made biological evolution cumulative, so exchange or trade made cultural evolution cumulative and intelligence collective.

He builds on the theories of others for their insights, including Richard Wrangham's proposition that the use of fire enabled cooking providing the release of more energy from food. More energy allowed development of the brain. More energy from food meant less time needed to be spent on hunting and therefore created leisure time. Leisure time and trade resulted in specialisation, the division of labour and innovation. Technology was made possible by the division of labour : market exchange calls forth innovation. It is plausible!

Other theories are rained down which I find persuasive: the success of human being and trade dependent crucially but precariously on numbers and connections i.e. urbanisation; agriculture was made possible because of trade and without trade there would be no farming; the more people trust each other, the more successful that society is; the importance of oxytocin as a human hormone making people feel good about each other and creating empathy and encouraging trade.

But he then focuses on the two great pessimisms of today - Africa and Climate change.

He argues forcibly that Africa is not the basket case of popular perception and provides the evidence from the recent economic growth, to the reduction in AIDS, famine, wars and conflicts and increased life expectancy.

On climate change he accepts that global warming by increased carbon dioxide levels undoubtedly provide a challenge and that catastrophe is not impossible. But he argues that, on the IPCC's own figures, probability of global warming leading to catastrophe is small. The probability of rapid and severe climate change is small; the probability of net harm from the most likely climate change is small; and the probability of no new low-carbon energy technologies emerging is small. Multiply those small probabilities together and the probability of a prosperous twenty first century is large.

Read this book and your views and prejudices will either be reinforced or changed. Whatever you will end happier than you started! But you will feel the argument is thought through not based on blind optimism.


Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
by Steven Johnson
Edition: Hardcover

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chance favours the connected mind, 15 Nov. 2010
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The common image of the individual operating alone in the laboratory dreaming up brilliant flashes of inspiration is countered by Johnson with the argument that ideas are generated by crowds where connection is more important than protection.

Steven Johnson's technique is the personalisation of his theme, drawing unexpected conclusions from the personal story and then weaving it into the next story. For example he brings to life through stories his assertion that good ideas are built on previous work and depend upon the variety of other stimuli around them. He recounts how in the late 1870's a Parisian obstetrician named Stephane Tarnier took a day off from his work at Maternite de Paris and paid a visit to the nearby Paris Zoo where chicken eggs were being incubated. It gave Tarnier the inspiration to develop incubation for babies leading to a medical advance that rivals any more well known innovations, such as radiation therapy or double heart bypass, in terms of giving humans longer life. Then follows the sequel about Timothy Prestero, an MIT professor who visited the Indonesian city of Meulaboh after the 2004 Indian Tsunami. He discovered that eight baby incubators, donated by a range of international organisations, were broken down through lack of spare parts. Prestoro and his team decided to build an incubator out of car parts that were abundant in the developing world - an idea that had originated with a Boston doctor named Jonathon Rosen. From this Johnson asserts that good ideas develop like this NeoNurture incubator. "The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table."

The astounding detail in this short paragraph brings a richness to his arguments about the generation of ideas.

Johnson counters the colloquial description of good ideas as sparks, flashes or eureka moments and likens them to networks. For new ideas the sheer size of network is needed and it needs to be plastic - capable of reconfiguration. Innovation thrives on a wide pool of minds. The eureka moment is usually preceded by the slow hunch like Darwin's theory of evolution that developed over many years.

Johnson extols the power of accidental connections or serendipity in the recognition of the significance of the new ideas. Innovation prospers when ideas can be serendiptiously connected and recombined with other ideas, when hunches can stumble across other hunches. Walls dividing ideas such as patents, trade secrets and proprietary technology inhibit serendipidy. Open environments are more conducive to innovation than closed.

Error which creates a path that leads you out of your comfort zone and exaptation , which are traits optimised for a specific use getting hijacked for a completely different use (birds feathers evolved for warmth proving useful for flying) are key paths to innovation. The history of the world wide web designed for the academic environment now used for shopping, sharing photos and Google.

Johnson classifies sources of key innovations from 1400 to the present day according to whether they were driven by the individual or a network and whether they were market driven or non market. He concludes that non market, open platform networked approach is now far more prolific. Witness Google, Twitter, Amazon.

Powerful , often controversial but immensely readable. The appendix alone describing the key innovations from 1400 to now is a fascinating read.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 23, 2012 3:01 PM GMT


Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World
Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World
by Mark Kurlansky
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cod's key role in the development of nations - and its demise, 31 Oct. 2010
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Why read a book about cod? Because I had read Mark's latest Basque history and I was intrigued to see if he could repeat the compulsive reading about a subject about which I knew little.

"Cod" is strong on the role the fish played in power politics, navigation and the making of history in past centuries. It weaves into the book the struggle for sea supremacy particularly between the Portugese and the Spanish and the British. It is graphic in its description of the rigours and risks of fishermen. It ascribes the nutrition provided by cod to allowing the great voyages of peoples from the Vikings to the Basques. It provides the background to the opening up of Newfoundland and New England and the voyages to discover other parts of the world.

But the book is more than a book about fish. It reinterprets in some detail the American War of Independence and the attitude to the slave trade in the light of the importance of the Grand banks fishing grounds. Historically cod fishing was a crucially important economic driver.

But, in recent years, lack of control or international coordination of overfishing has resulted in decimation of stocks. Glimmers of hope are provided by the fact that decimated cod stocks have been restored fairly quickly in some cases, such as in 1989 when the Norwegian government realised its cod stocks were in serious decline. And the possibility that cod farming holds out for re-establishing stocks.

But Mark Kurlansky is very sceptical of the ability of to restore stocks where overfishing has been severe. He is very scathing of the EU Common Fisheries policy and of the ability of nations to cooperate on fishing. It is not just the fish that are dying, it is the fishing communities and the fishermen. The book sees no hope for the future of a cod fishing industry of significance or importance.

A good read. Not as powerful as Mark's Basque history and deflating in its conclusions.


The Basque History Of The World
The Basque History Of The World
by Mark Kurlansky
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.59

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Authoritative, compelling, colourful Basque history, 23 Oct. 2010
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This all encompassing history of a small region of Europe I have never been to and have no reason to empathise with, managed to provide compelling reading.

The book paints a picture of a violent and hard fought history of Basqueness with its rich oral Euskera language, the Basque legal Fueros system, its recipes and food and portraits of leading people. Though their land resides in three provinces of France and four of Spain, Basques have always insisted they have a country and they call it Euskadi. All the powerful peoples around them - the Celts and the Romans, the royal houses of Aquitaine, Navarra, Aragon and Castile; later the Spanish and French monarchies, dictatorships and republics - have tried to subdue and assimilate them and all have failed.

The history is violent from the Inquisition's attempts in the 1600's to weed out Basque witches to the brutal and complicated nineteenth century Carlist civil wars, the French Revolution that set off not only Spaniards against Basques, but also Basques against Basques to Franco's civil war in the 20th century and then ETA.
Whilst the Basques are united by language and identify with their family home, they are an outward looking, entrepreneurial people of traders, fishermen and whalers who prior to Columbus were fishing and whaling as far away as Norway and Newfoundland. They probably had settled in the US prior to Columbus 1488 "discovery" and certainly provided Columbus with many of the captains of his fleet that found their way there. The Basques were not only leading industrialists, with Bilbao pioneering steel making, but also the first modern bankers in Spain.

Despite repeated invasions the Basques have maintained an identity with their Fueros law and their language. The Fueros was a remarkably progressive medieval law. Revised ion 1526 it was one of the first legal codes to outlaw the use of torture, ban debtors prison, protect citizens from arbitrary arrest and give women more consideration than most mediaval law - for example property rights.

Basque cooking and cuisine is a recurring theme of the book with recipes described in great detail and examples of Basque cuisine, for example on how to cook an eel and avoiding slime secreted from its glands spoiling the dish by plunging it into warm water. Basque eels are exported all over the world.

The promotion of the Basque language , Euskera, is the unifying factor and remains the first goal of the most nationalists. Franco tried to dilute it by drafting many non Basques into the Basque region but with the formation of ETA it became the defining factor of Basqueness. Traditionally an oral language with many dialects it was only in the 20th Century that it became a written language.

Portraits of leading characters are drawn from Jenaro Pildain a master of the pil pil cod dish to nationalists such as Sabino Arana who in 1893 organised public demonstrations declaring Basque nationalism and the poets like Jose Antonio Aguirre

A rich and thought provoking book.


It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness On Two Wheels
It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness On Two Wheels
by Robert Penn
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshing, original,entertaining alternative to normal biking books, 2 Oct. 2010
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Its the story of the bike and interweaves its rich history with the social impact and a personal mission to build new bike "a talismanic machine that somehow reflects my cycling history and carries my cycling aspirations."

The book is peppered with historical context. In 1815 Mount Tamborain, Indonesia, erupted resulting in the year without the summer and widespread famine. Farmers shot their horses because they could not afford the oats. Inspired by necessity Baron Karl von Drais de Sauerbronn conceived the mechanical horse with wheels. The bike was not invented by Leonardo da Vinci as rumoured!

The personal mission involves criss crossing the UK visiting craftsmen to find Brian O'Rourke a 70 year old bike frame builder in "the shrine to the sport of road racing" in his bike shop in the Potteries. Seeking the best craftsmen in the world to build the components he visits Chris King in Portland Oregon to get the headset, aluminium handlebars from Cino Cinelli in Milan, drivetrain from Campagnolo in Vicenza, Italy , wheels built by and ex hippy bike rider, Gravy, from Fairfax , Marin County in the US, with Royce Hubs from Cliff Poulton in Hampshire , England , tyres from Continental in Korpach, Germany and spokes from Sapim in Belgium.

But it is not whizz bang technology - the trips to the manufacturers are "like something out of Willy Wonkers Chocolate Factory" and the characters he meets entertainingly described: "He offered me a hand the size of a tennis racket. Then he broke into a smile the size of the Golden Gate Bridge". His descriptions of the development of the bike and bike racing over the last couple of hundred years are evocative
" A simple bike ride could still rattle a man's molars free."

An original, broadminded approach to biking which provides a refreshing alternative to the conventional trip description or autobiography. You don't have to be a biker to enjoy this one. But if you are a biker it makes you want to build your own!


Infidel
Infidel
by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A powerful insight into Muslim life, 26 Sept. 2010
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This review is from: Infidel (Paperback)
This vivid, eloquent and heart rending description of the upbringing of a Muslim woman is powerful, compulsive reading.
First in Somalia, then Ethiopia, then Riyhad but mainly in Kenya, the restricted, dependent way of life, the rote learning of the Quran, female circumcision, regular brutal beatings of women, arranged marriages and honour killing of girls who disobey their fathers or husbands are described as normal. But conversely, the strong sense of family responsibility and clan loyalties enable her family to cope with the civil war and exile whilst her father stays in Ethiopia organising the opposition to Siad Barre.
Somalia in the 1970's is a country being torn apart by civil war between the clans - the Osman Mahamud, Isaq, Darod and Hawiye. The bureaucracy is completely corrupt and spends much of its time scheming how to "transfer" funds i.e. steal them. The blatant cynicsm with which development aid was greeted should make international development workers stop and think. The subsequent rise of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood movement in the 1980's is ascribed in part to the honesty and trust that believers generate in financial transactions, schools and food relief, in contrast to the endemic corruption; and in part to the huge financial support for fundamentalism from Saudi Arabia.
As an independent minded, yet orthodox religious girl Ayaan could not accept her father's arrangement of a marriage for her and so she escaped to Holland where the tolerance and freedom for women and the fairness and honesty of the society made her question her faith. Her gradual conversion from strict hidjab clad black robed fundamentalist Muslim faith to atheism is very sensitively described.
But from the frying pan into the fire. Her rise to a political star and the making of a film about her experiences as a Muslim women brought about the murder of Theo Van Gogh (the filmmaker) and a fatwah on her. Forced to leave the strong friendships she has made in Holland she is exiled to the USA. But there is not a hint of self pity from this amazing strong character.
A powerful and thought provoking book.


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