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Sally Walker (Eastbourne, UK)

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Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn - A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods & the Water and The Broken Road
Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn - A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods & the Water and The Broken Road
by Nick Hunt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Hunt's writing is strong enough to be judged on its own merits and not to be found wanting, 20 Jan. 2015
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A really good first hand account of a young man’s walk from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn, undertaken in 2011. Hunt writes intelligently and interestingly, with vivid descriptions and observations. It’s a well-crafted book that deserves to be on a shelf alongside well-known travel writers. I hope he goes on to make further travels and to write about them.

Hunt was following in the footsteps of the great Patrick Leigh Fermour who walked the same route in 1933-34. PLF’s writing is incomparable and it is perhaps courageous of Hunt to try to follow in his literary footsteps. Hunt has a different writing style, but in my view it is strong enough to be judged on its own merits and not to be found wanting.

For all those who have read PLF’s a A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, (and if you have not I urge you to do so) and thought at the end I wondered what happened to the people that he spent sometime with along the way then Hunt’s book will give you some of the answers.

Just as PLF gave us a snapshot of European life at a particular time – pre-WW2 - so does Hunt - post WW2 and post the fall of communism in eastern Europe. Thus Walking the Woods and the Water makes for a fascinating read and device by which to make comparisons. Much has changed of course, but some things remain the same, for example the simmering feud between Hungarians and Romanians over land.

As does PLF, so does Hunt, give us an account of the changes in the landscapes, languages, cultures, physical appearance and attitudes of the people of the eight countries through which he walks. This all goes to show us how diverse Europe and its people are.

I thoroughly recommend this book, you’ll not be disappointed.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Cooper, Artemis (2012) Hardcover
Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Cooper, Artemis (2012) Hardcover
by Artemis Cooper
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars A well-written and comprehensive account of his life, 11 Jan. 2015
Having read A Time For Gifts and Between The Woods and The Water I wanted to find out what happened next to PLF and what kind of man he turned out to be; how he lived his life. PLF An Adventure has certainly satisfied my quest. It is a well-written, engaging and comprehensive account of his life from beginning to end. Cooper has clearly done a lot of research, helped by the mass of correspondence that PLF wrote over his long life.

In addition being the grandaughter of one of PLF's long-term armours / friends - Diana Cooper - Cooper had probably known PLF since she was a young child and was therefore well placed to write this biography. But this is not a book about the Paddy she knew at all. Indeed the author only at one point says I was there and I witnessed PLF do this. Thus to her credit she keeps herself off stage. Given that she will have a fount of fond memories of him, I presume, it is also to her credit that she has written a very balanced account of his life - she passes no judgement, just tells it like it was. So Cooper's biography of PLF is not littered with her take on him and this leaves the reader free to form their own opinion.

I thoroughly recommend this book.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars A perfect blend of scientific journalism and the telling of a very human story, 7 Jan. 2015
This book is the result of an admirable and impressive amount of research including first hand and extensive contact with Henrietta Lacks’s family. It is a perfect blend of scientific journalism and the telling of a very human story. It is many layered and cleverly constructed. The writing is straightforward and highly accessible.

The human story of Henrietta Lacks is long overdue. That of her early and excruciating painful death from cervical cancer, the subsequent use of her cancer cells for scientific research without consent and the knock-on effect of this upon her family. The straightforward writing style that Skloot has adopted I found made the poignancy of Henrietta’s eldest daughter’s life, in particular, all the more stark.

It is a real eye-opener for the likes of me a relatively pampered middle class women living in southern England to read about the degree of poverty that abounds in the black population in Baltimore in the US in the C21st. This poverty I know will not be restricted to Baltimore. Skloot lifts the lid on the eternal divide between the have’s and the have-not’s in America and the discrimination that endures.

I find it very easy to be switched off by science but Skloot presents the scientific information in such an easily accessible manner that I have gained a lot of information about the way that cancer cells operate. It’s a hit between the eyes about the thorny and disparate issues concerning tissue donation and the rights of the donar, or, most likely the lack of rights of the donar and their successors.

This book is a credit to the author, a real tour de force of effort, which I hope proves to be the first of many. I

I therefore highly recommend this book.

Life Class: The Selected Memoirs of Diana Athill
Life Class: The Selected Memoirs of Diana Athill
by Diana Athill
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.92

5.0 out of 5 stars A refreshingly frank telling of one woman's life and how she feels about it, 6 Jan. 2015
Most memoirs / biographies are written by people who have either been in the public eye or have lived a particularly noteworthy life. This series of memoirs, collected together into Life Class, is exceptional in that they have been written by a woman not famous, infamous or lived a life of particular note. However, her memoirs represent a reading gem.

Not only is the writing well crafted but also she reaches out to her readers with her refreshing frankness as to what her life has comprised. Born in 1917 and with some of her memoirs published not until this century you learn about life in Britain throughout much of the twentieth century.

What makes her memoirs distinctive is that Athill writes about how she has felt about her life. She expresses what many of us feel, or have felt at some stage in our lives, but often don’t talk about, perhaps most notably about the experience of ageing and of being old in Somewhere Towards The End. At no point does she descend into self-pity of self-indulgence. On the contrary she is often laugh out loud witty.

Of particular interest too is her telling within Stet of the behind the scenes of book publishing, her career having being that of an editor. She explains the role of the editor and talks about the experiences she had in working with six authors in particular. This was very revealing as to the often quirky and in some cases tortured psyche of writers.

I highly recommend this book. Don’t be put off by the length of this book, your eyes will fly through its pages.

H is for Hawk
H is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.49

23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A heavy read, 28 Dec. 2014
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This review is from: H is for Hawk (Hardcover)
There is no doubt about it this is an extremely intelligently written book. Intelligent writing is what I always seek and when I find it I’m halfway there to a good read. The other half of course depends upon the content.

After an initial flourish, in which I thought this book to be one of the best that I have ever read, I just got bogged down in its darkness.

It’s a blend of the author writing about her passage through the grief she experienced following the sudden death of her father; the coping mechanism that she adopted of acquiring and training a young female goshawk; and a brief biography of T H White, an author who wrote, amongst other books, The Goshawk.

Macdonald’s grief spiralled down into depression and T H White, we learn, was one of life’s outsiders, who exerted energy to try to fit in and then gave up and instead tried to connect with a goshawk. In short he lived an angst-ridden life, with little joy. So what this book is about, in the main, is a woman writing about a very difficult time in her life that she struggled to get through and weaving into her memoir a brief biography about an author who lived a tortuous life. Both sought consolation not to say salvation in their relationship with a hawk.

Hawks are carnivorous birds. Once Macdonald reached the stage where she could let her hawk fly free there are recounted episodes of the hawk’s hunting escapades, some ending with Macdonald finishing the prey off herself.

Whilst there are highly descriptive accounts of the landscapes through which Macdonald and her hawk traversed, for me this did little to alleviate the heaviness of the intervening passages. Indeed I came to dread reading another passage about T H White because his treatment of his first hawk was misguided and often cruel.

Macdonald recounts how T H White in response to the publication of his book The Goshawk, received a letter from a man who berated him for his cruelty to his hawk and wrote: ‘Is there not enough cruelty in the world without adding to it for one’s amusement or hobby?’

Now I am NOT suggesting that Macdonald was cruel or unkind to her hawk, but I did think at various points that given that goshawks have never been domesticated, would it not be better to let them live as nature intended, flying free in the wild. But perhaps I am missing the point?

I so much wanted to like this book and truly expected to love this book given the rave reviews that it has received, but I found it a heavy read. I suspect mine may be a lone voice in the dark, but I have to be true to myself when I review a book.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 28, 2015 2:28 PM GMT

Between the Woods and the Water: on Foot to Constantinople from the Hook of Holland - The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates
Between the Woods and the Water: on Foot to Constantinople from the Hook of Holland - The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates
by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Simply superb, 25 Dec. 2014
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The sequel to A Time For Gifts recounts Leigh Fermour's walk across Hungary and Rumania, starting at precisely the point that his first book finished on the bridge at Esztergom on the Hungarian border. (A Time For Gifts told of the author's journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Esztergom; a journey undertaken when he was just eighteen and nineteen years old, undertaken in 1933 - 1934. His objective was to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, as it was then known). For those who have not yet read A Time For Gifts I strongly urge you to do so before beginning this book. Whilst it is not essential to read it, it will put this walk into context.

Leigh Fermor wrote this book some fifty years following the end of his journey; it was published in 1986. So it is a much older and wiser man looking back at and writing about his journey. I believe this adds much to this book.

This leg of his journey is dominated by him hopping from one gentleman's mansion to another, with a few open air sleeps, (or sojourns in rural inns) either alone in the landscape or with gypsies and peasant shepherd families. Amongst the landed gentry Leigh Fermour was passed somewhat like a parcel from one wealthy family to another. He says himself that staying in such places is not what he originally intended, rather he expected to live more the life of a nomadic tramp, however he did not regret getting caught up in the lives of Hungarian and Rumanian minor aristocracy because within a matter of just a few years, with the outbreak of WW2, their way of life and indeed many of them themselves, were completely erased. This can only add poignancy to your reading of this book.

Another attraction is Leigh Fermour's youth at the time that he walked through these countries; the fact that he was essentially care free. This feeling I found infectious and slid off the pages into my inner being and made me remember parts of my own younger carefree days.

As with A Time For Gifts what absolutely makes this book is its superb, mellifluous and intelligent writing. The author's intelligence shines through every page. This is so much more than a journal, a day-by-day account of his journey. He describes so well the landscapes that he passes through; the people that he meets; and the architecture of the towns and cities he walks to. Much stimulates in him wide ranging thoughts and perceptions. Too you will learn much of European history by reading this book.

I can't recommend this book enough.

Coming Up Trumps: A Memoir
Coming Up Trumps: A Memoir
by Jean Trumpington
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.59

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing to say the least!, 24 Dec. 2014
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If you like memoirs / biographies to be deep fat fried as opposed to lightly sauté, then like me, you will find this morsel disappointing.

I struggled to get to the end, having thought to abandon it halfway through. What kept me going was a wish to find, hopefully, more depth in the author’s account of her political life. But my hopes were dashed.

This memoir contains scant reflection or insights into the author’s own life or those of the people who most affected her life. It reads more like an edited diary: I did this and I did that and I went to this wonderful party and had a lot of fun.

Whilst Trumpington’s resume is that of somebody who has led an interesting life, she fails to convey any depth to her life and the end result, for me, is a dollop of froth bobbing on top of the real person who lies underneath. It is entirely possible that Trumpington herself made little enquiry to discover her true self, preferring to remain in her aren’t we all having great fun mode.

Jean Trumpington came from a privileged background, albeit the 1930’s taking its toll on the family’s finances, but only to a degree relative to the experience of the common man. Whilst some with a similar start to life, in adulthood develop a sense of perspective and humility, but there is little evidence that Trumpington has done this. Consequently I found it hard to relate to or warm to her.

I therefore cannot recommend this book. If you are looking for an extremely good read in the form of a series of memoirs that cover the life of an 89 year old woman who had perhaps a more privileged background that you could do a lot worse than to read Diana Athill’s Life Stories.

Downland Shepherds
Downland Shepherds
by Bob Copper
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars A lovely, highly informative and well illustrated book, 17 Dec. 2014
This review is from: Downland Shepherds (Hardcover)
For all those who, like me, walk across a landscape and try to imagine how it would have appeared in the past, this book will certainly re-create for you how the beautiful Sussex Downland would have appeared for centuries up until 1920 – 1930. It will also detail for you the changes that were taking place at this time. For example, the demarcation of the Downland by barbed wire into areas in separate land ownership. Not to mention the threats posed by housing developers keen to make a fast buck by building des-res on the Downland with stunning views of the Weald land below.

This book is packed with many photographs and beautiful illustrations.

Barclays Wills was a keen enthusiast for nature and for shepherds and their way of life as lived out on the Downs. He was one of a handful of men who at this time completely engaged with the beauty of the landscape that is particular to the Downs and sought to protect it from harm. Sensing, and indeed witnessing, that the winds of change were coming, Wells wanted to make a record of the shepherd’s way of life. He therefore writes right at the pivot point in time when the old ways were being gradually obliterated by the new ways of farming. New ways which did away with the need for shepherds who tended to their flocks 365 days of the year regardless of the weather. Wells clearly laments the loss of the shepherd and found it hard to accept the modern ways of life.

It is a moving and vivid portrayal of the shepherd’s lives and is the result of much time that Barclay Wells spent with the shepherds chatting with them to discover what they did. It is full of rich details and will tell you exactly how they undertook their work through the seasons and the equipment they used.

This book will appeal to many, not just those who love the Downs landscape, but also those interested in social and agricultural history. Those too whose faces turn more towards the past and the former slower pace of life, wanting to read about fulfilled and complete lives lived out entirely in one county, will love this book. It will transport them far away from the swift, technology-driven and media-obsessed lives that the majority live today. It will therefore bring a few ounces of a soothing balm brought straight to you from a past of less than one hundred years ago.

The spirit of the downs : impressions and reminscences of the Sussex downs / by Arthur Beckett ; with twelve illustrations from photographs, endpapers and maps
The spirit of the downs : impressions and reminscences of the Sussex downs / by Arthur Beckett ; with twelve illustrations from photographs, endpapers and maps
by Arthur. Beckett
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars A gem of a book, 2 Nov. 2014
This is a delightful book, a gem of historical writing, that will be of interest to all those who love the Sussex Downs for sure, but also to those with an interest in finding out what life was like in the countryside in the c19th and at the beginning of the C20th.

Beckett starts his book with an evocation of the ‘Spirit’ of the Downs, with whom he has an imaginary conversation. I quote a small section here:

“Thus on the top of the hill I received the great gift of the Spirit of the Downs – the gift that makes a man master of the world. It is the gift that is given to all who find the Spirit and commune with it.

Then I asked the Spirit to explain the gift. “The Gift,” said the Spirit, “is the power of interpreting the Commonplace. The man who receives it no longer, and ever will be again, a slave. The gift gives him golden days, the existence of which he has only suspected. He will return to his toil, but his spirit is freed and dwells, as he works, on the joy of the new days he has found; and always, when he may, he lays his work aside and comes to the Downs to feel again the full flavour of his freedom, and to enjoy the delights of commonplace things.”

How Zen is this! I have found this to be so true.

A chunk of this book is given over to Beckett describing his walking of the South Downs Way starting in Winchester. He travels with an anonymous friend: Amicus. Beckett describes not just the landscape of the Downs and the Weald which lies at it’s feet, but also the life of the characters they meet along the way, principally in the Downland villages where they seek food, beer, porterage for their knapsacks and overnight accommodation.

The remainder includes a brief overview of the history of the Downs and the people who have dwelled either upon them or close by. He also gives a chapter to the people currently living in or nearby the downland. Beckett describes them as Sussex peasants and is often, prejudicial and condescending, which now grates in our politically correct world.

There is an interesting chapter about the history of the procession through Lewes to mark the fifth day of November each year.

Pure joy are the chapters in which he recounts particular people whom he has struck up a conversation with, including an old shepherd at Beachy Head. Many of these people, mainly men, were old when Beckett was speaking to them. Given that he first published this book in 1909, some of these men would have been born before Victoria came to the throne. So what we have is an insight as to what life was like for those who earned their living off the land in the C19th.

The edition I read was published in 1930, so after the WW1 and relatively shortly before WW2. It marks the beginning of the drawing of the veil over centuries, if not millennia way of life just before it is replaced with mechanisation. So we find Beckett lamenting the fact that there are hardly any shepherds to be found who still wear the Sussex smock and that there are only three farms that he can list where the ploughing is still undertaken by oxen.

After you have read this book and then walk over the Downs you will not see them in the same way again. They will be greatly enriched by your imaginations as to who has gone before you on the same path, thanks to what Beckett has laid before you.

A must read for those with an interest in Sussex, and the Downs in particular, historical country life and social history.

I highly recommend this book.

My Pride and Joy: Autobiography
My Pride and Joy: Autobiography
by George Adamson
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, at times gripping and often thought provoking., 21 Oct. 2014
This represents a very interesting, at times gripping and often thought provoking read. George’s writing style is highly accessible and straightforward. At the beginning he states that his intention is to share both the good and the bad, by which he means that he will not shy away from writing about things that perhaps he could have done better, or went wrong in his life.

He plunges the reader straight into the African bush, whose landscape and wildlife George brings to life with vivid descriptions. George’s account of his early life in Kenya provides an historical perspective on the white colonialist occupation.

Having just read The Great Safari, an admirable and very detailed biography of both George and Joy Adamson, it is nice to hear George’s own voice. A man who bonded together two opposing characteristics: gentleness and modesty, with bravery, courage and can do spirit. His gentleness is none the more exemplified by his very spare and diplomatic account of what it was like to be married to Joy Adamson, who had a very mercurial personality. Given that he wrote his book after her death, he could have let rip, and it is to his credit that instead he concentrated on the positive and drew a veil over the bad times.

George, like Joy, will forever remain linked first and foremost to Elsa, the lioness of Born Free that they reared in the wild and taught to fend for herself, to the point that she was able to raise her own family. But actually this was just the start of George’s lifetime work, namely rearing and looking after a large number of lions, with varied characters, to a point that they could live a life of freedom in the wild. George gives a detailed account of his lions and does not demure on recounting the disastrous events associated with some of them.

George’s earlier life is no less dramatic and he gives us a window into Kenya prior to mass tourism and the increasing demands placed upon the wild lands of Africa due to man’s exploding population. The closing chapters of George’s autobiography bring into sharp focus the lasting effects of these outside pressures upon the delicate but intricately balanced ecology of the African bush, which he carefully sets out. He says that the best outcome for a lion that is released is a question mark as to the life it is living free in the wild and he closes his book with question marks of his own as to what will happen to the bush in the future. Here, in the west, we are so far removed and so focussed on hand-held gadgets, that we have little interest in what is happening to the swathes of vanishing African wilderness, that is until perhaps it is too late. We really need a 21st century George and Joy Adamson to bring such things to our attention.

Much criticism has been levelled at the Adamson’s as to what in the final analysis they achieved with rearing big cats and the releasing them into the wild. George does not shy away from such criticism and he gives his levelled response. It is for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions, and I’ll not voice mine here.

Ultimately this is an account of a man who by and large lived his life the way he wanted to, which was free in the African bush, away from the normal constraints of so called civilised society. How many of us live lives of such freedom? Whilst you are reading this book you can vicariously have a taste of such freedom.

I highly recommend this book.

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