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Kay Sexton "kaylesleigh" (Brighton UK)

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The Rubbish-Picker's Wife: an unlikely friendship in Kosovo
The Rubbish-Picker's Wife: an unlikely friendship in Kosovo
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Great writing with passion and purpose, 27 Aug. 2015
Elizabeth Gowingis a writer who is new to me and her current book is not my usual reading. I was sent a copy of The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife to review, which is my disclosure statement – and on my usual basis I said I’d read the book, write a review and ask the author if she was happy for me to publish it, but I wouldn’t change anything I thought or felt about the book – all that would happen is she could ask me NOT to publish.

It’s an interesting question why I accepted the book at all. Partly because as the former CEO of a number of charities and think tanks, the premise interested me, partly, I think, because the snippets of Gowing’s writing I found online were fascinating: precise, very British (as in restrained but candid) and yet profoundly honest about her reactions to the places she finds herself in.

I’m glad to say I found the book rewarding. There are three reasons it was a compelling read for me:

The subject matter fascinated me

It’s beautifully crafted

The stories Gowing tells are sometimes humorous and sometimes emotionally charged, but always rendered with delicacy and precision.

One of the dilemmas that Gowing explores is the micro-macro approach – should we install water pipes to help people have better facilities to wash and do laundry or should we train them to become water engineers and plumbers so they can develop their own communities? It’s a debate I remember having every week for several decades, or so it felt, at the UN, at DFID, at EU funding meetings, with individual benefactors, with donor agencies …. it was draining. Because Gowing gives us anecdotes that explore this dilemma, it becomes real and vivid again, and allows us, the reader, to begin to appreciate some of the policy decisions that charities, NGOs and government bodies make daily around health, poverty and development. The answer, by the way, is both – do both, and do them well.

Another thing that struck me about the book was an early statement about the process of educating children excluded from school in Fushė Kosovė, a part of Kosovo with intense poverty and deprivation for complex reasons. As Gowing says, “We had the same trouble I’ve had in every primary school geography lesson I’ve ever taught of understanding whether Prishtina is in Kosovo or Kosovo is in Prishtina and the sheer implausibility of being able to put your finger right over Fushė Kosovė – blotting out this very building from the map. If you’re going to rely on education to give you a place in the world you can’t rely only on maths, literacy and English”. It’s hard for us to imagine a worldview that doesn’t have maps, that doesn’t extend beyond walking distance and that can’t work out whether a town is bigger than a country or not. It’s also very easy to assume that the internet age and mobile connectivity has destroyed this isolation, but it hasn’t, in my experience. The problem with deprivation is that it prevents people having the very tools that would remove deprivation. You may indeed have a mobile phone, but if you bought it from a market stall and it runs on black-market unlocking, you’re unlikely to have the time, money or knowledge to check out your village on Google Earth and get a sense of global perspective!

Even though I worked in this field for some years, I’d forgotten how intractable it can be. Gowing’s battles to get the children accepted for school are beautifully rendered without judgement but with a real sense of outrage that there can still be places in Europe where universal literacy is an aim, but not a practical goal. I’d forgotten too how intense the relationships are when people expect to live and die in a house, in a village, in a community that their parents also lived and died in. Gowing delineates that too … the endless ramifications of community relationships for good, and for ill. A woman has her IUD removed because her spiritual adviser says she should, and then gets pregnant when another child will definitely go hungry and cause the other children to go hungry too. It’s easy to get angry about such accounts, but the truth is, that spiritual adviser will be there for the family when they grow and have children of their own – but the family planning clinic might not be!

Something I would have liked more of is Gowing herself. She has real doubt about her ability to help, about her role, about whether she’s a do-gooder and a busybody … this level of doubt and enquiry into motive helped make the book rounded and honest. She also had some health issues that I wish she’d talked a little more more about – very few people in the aid and humanitarian world get out unscathed; my own health impacts include: pneumonia and septicaemia in Mexico, Helicobacter virus and bleeding ulcers in India and chronic fatigue syndrome in either Sweden or Denmark, not sure which because I lost a chunk of memory that’s never come back! Of course my own background makes me want to know more about Gowing’s experiences but I think most readers probably would have wanted a little more of this very human frailty to be explained and explored too.

I really recommend this book, even if it’s not your regular reading material. I found it both fascinating and frightening and I felt confident I was being invited to enter a lived experience. This is not a book written after a month somewhere, by some hipster wannabe journalist who’s read Eat, Pray, Love and jumped on the bandwagon. It’s a deep, honest, tender and sometimes self-doubting account of the reality of absolute poverty and how we can all do a little more today, and every day, to alleviate the poverty and suffering of those right on our doorstep. If I sound preachy, don’t be put off – this is fine reading in the best tradition of Victorian travellers, it’s subtle, considered and honest and the fact that it has a deep and impassioned message simply enhances and shapes this excellent, beautifully written narrative.

Grow Your Food for Free (Well Almost)
Grow Your Food for Free (Well Almost)
by Dave Hamilton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.91

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Growing advice for the down to earth grower, 27 Jun. 2011
As a keen allotment-holder and sometime writer of gardening blogs (and books!) I'd be the first to say that some of the books out there are really not much use to the serious grower, and misleading to the novice one. Not so Dave Hamilton's book, which fills an empty niche (which is the whole point of a specialist subject book, there are far too many coffee table style allotment books out there, full of lovely pictures and devoid of useful information) and that niche is upskilling and informing the environmentally conscious (and conscientious) frugal food-grower.

I can't recommend it too highly because, apart from anything else, I am horrified at the amount of money I see new allotment-holders spending on their plots, only to vanish after a couple of months: all their expensive kit gets thrown away, or ruined by the weather and then the next person to take on the plot all too often repeats the same process.

By contrast, Dave shows people how to create paths, make wicking beds, build a compost heap (although if you are a novice composter, think twice before using the fence corner as he suggests: you may rot out your fence if you don't get your compost mix right!) and even how to build a shed. He also focuses on rarely discussed areas of allotment life such as foraging and once you get used to growing your own, it's a simple change of focus that reveals food everywhere, going to waste, and allows you to harvest and consume it without damaging the environment.

The illustrations may not suit those more used to stylish allotment books but they have the virtue of being accurate and detailed. The tips, hints and ideas are all superb - if you are a seasoned grower you will still learn something from this book.

I recommend it, even if you don't have a plot of your own yet, because you can get on with foraging, cooking and storing food even before you reach the top of the allotment list.

The Hummingbird and the Bear
The Hummingbird and the Bear
by Nicholas Hogg
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love takes people to dark places, 6 Jun. 2011
Sam Taylor is was raised by a single mother who marries a man who turns into a violent step-father and Sam becomes one of the many young men who are thrown out of their `family' homes by a man who usurps the role of head of householder without choosing to serve as father. After a few years of roughing it, Sam turns his life around, at least on the material level, and becomes a self-made man. It's a familiar enough story on one level - all the real life rough diamonds who polish themselves into success are examples of this story in action.

But this self-made man, with a superb standard of living, `perfect' girlfriend and every possible advantage, is unmade when he meets a woman whom we cannot resist and who can't resist him. And at this point the story becomes something darker, more complex and quite disturbing: it's about love, but also about risk and the way that risk can be a kind of compulsion. From the moment Sam and Kay meet at a wedding they are compelled towards each other, regardless of that risk. For Sam the risk is the collapse of his beautiful, but precarious lifestyle but for Kay the risks are greater: she's already married and to a powerful man - who doesn't like losing anything, least of all his wife.

As the story unfolds we see similarities between Sam and Kay - both have fracture lines in their family histories that they have concealed but which bring them together in a mutual and ultimately destructive love affair. The collapse of their fake lives is set against the collapse of the finance industry in which Sam works and where Kay's husband is a major player to create a micro/macro scenario of loss, damage and spiralling madness.

The Hummingbird and the Bear is an unusual book - written by a man about themes usually reserved for `women's literature'; part love story and part fast-moving thriller; somewhat of a moral fable but also a forensic examination of the global banking collapse, it's a rare creature - a romantic book you could give to a man to read without having to apologise for handing him a 'relationship story'. Highly recommended for intelligent readers who enjoy passionate writing.

Something Beginning With
Something Beginning With
by Sarah Salway
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Witty, obliquely dark and a keeper ..., 18 Nov. 2010
When I first read this book I had no idea what it was - even now, I struggle to explain it to others. It's a list book, but written before the list book genre took hold of publishing, it's a romance, but of a dark and elegantly twisted type, it's a buddy book, but the buddies are an easily-influenced and slightly eccentric woman and her worldly-wise, confident best friend, it's a story about relationships and also about the gap between the outside world and the interior life and how each individual fills that gap with myths, illusions, doubts and peculiarities.

Written in alphabetical format, it's actually an episodic narrative: you can't read it at random and get the best out of it, but you can re-read previous entries to be blown away by the clever foreshadowing of what's to come.

It's a book where every word counts: although you read it as if it's the frothiest of fun, there are dark currents under that surface that catch you before you realise it. You can read it at a sitting and re-read it every year without it feeling too familiar.

For me the entries are like commuting on a train - each one is a glimpse in a lit window, a snapshot of a life and as each day's journey takes you past the same window, you build those snapshots into a deck of pictures you can fan, like a flicker book, to allow you to see the story 'move' and become animated in front of your eyes. Oddly, the more static the entry (like 'yellow') the more animation it adds to the narrative.

It's also a lovely book, warm and clever without ever being pretentious or self-aware, but to understand its fascination you have to read it, because this is one book where the synopsis just can't to justice to the narrative as a whole.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 4, 2010 4:25 PM GMT

The Greatest Gift: Lessons Learned From Exile in Siberia
The Greatest Gift: Lessons Learned From Exile in Siberia
by Andrew Bienkowski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gratitude can be Thrilling, 5 Mar. 2009
This book is a seamless combination of philosophy, memoir and development manual. While Andrew Bienkowski's life story of being exiled to Siberia with his family when a small boy is compelling enough to stand alone as narrative, the lessons he draws from his experiences and the way that he and co-author Mary Akers weave his personal discoveries of strength, gratitude and compassion into the horrors of his early life, makes the book both a page-turner and a thought-provoker.

I'm not a big fan of memoirs, so I approached this one with some trepidation, but my fears were needless. There is no misery to this memoir, only the beauty of facing hard truths in a hard environment and constructing wisdom from bitter experience. I can't recommend it too highly to the student of history or the seeker after strength and harmony or just the reader who wants to find out what it was really like to grow up in Siberia because Stalin sent your family there.

The Visible World
The Visible World
by Mark Slouka
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Visible World - a masterly evocation, 3 Mar. 2009
This review is from: The Visible World (Hardcover)
There are those who say 'good books' must be difficult to read. In general I don't agree with that, but in this case, this book is both good, in several senses, and difficult to read, in several senses.

The difficult part is both structural and moral - the first third of the book is written as a memoir: the son of a woman who is clearly emotionally troubled and distant from her husband and child begins to explore her past in the hope of discovering what has caused her to behave so painfully. His discovery is of a love affair, back in the Second World War, in Prague and its terrible, beautiful, tormented progress and eventual disastrous conclusion makes up the other two thirds of the book, which are morally and emotionally harrowing.

This makes the book uneven. The first part is strongly disassociated and both nostalgic and diffident, the rest is immediate and powerfully emotional. The child, grown to a man, is a little pathetic and often uninteresting to the reader, while the mother and her lover are strongly delineated and morally acute. Sometimes, reading the second section with the first in mind, it's like having one shoe on and one foot bare, it just feels very odd.

But the good parts of this book more than repay the effort the reader makes. The issues involved: maternal love versus the love of equals, the morality of wartime, the passion that people can feel when their lives are under threat, the several forms of acute courage displayed by various characters, the evocation of Prague ... all these are masterly but never bravura. The tone of the book is gentle, and this gentle and quiet pace allows an accretion of tension that is so subtle that you don't realise you're feeling it until you stop reading for a moment and feel how tightly you're holding the pages and know that you have to keep reading to find out what happens.

And what happens is truly heartbreaking. What Slouka achieves with this constrained pace and palate is an overwhelming sense of inevitability that carries you through the end of the novel with absolute certainty that you've never read a better love story, or a greater tragedy.

Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard
Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard
by Eleanor Farjeon
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Charm and superb storytellihng, 15 Sept. 2008
This is a book I remember from childhood but read again every couple of years for sheer pleasure. Set in the Sussex countryside that has all but disappeared, it tells of Martin, who must win the loyalty of six milkmaids who guard their love-sick mistress. He tells stories that win the milkmaids to his side, so that he can then woo the girl they've been hiding from him. Farjeon's language is lyrical and witty, and the stories are six little gems of the fairytale genre. For a child who loves reading, this book is a must. For an adult who's still fond of fairy tales, it's equally good.

by Lisa McMann
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read it in a sitting!, 19 May 2008
This review is from: Wake (Hardcover)
Faintly spooky, wise-cracking, fast-paced and funny, this is a book that my own teen is actually reading from choice, and he hasn't done that since he was eleven!

Janie can see, and even enter, other people's dreams, and if you think that's a great ability, think again. She discovers things about her friends (and her enemies) she'd really rather not have known, and it all becomes terrifying when she finds herself in a nightmare that belongs to somebody else.

This is a pacy, thought-provoking YA book that deals sensitively with some of the issues that many teens struggle with (sexuality, self image, friendship) without ever letting them intrude on the main story. An excellent book for teenagers

Out of a Clear Sky
Out of a Clear Sky
by Sally Hinchcliffe
Edition: Hardcover

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A satisfying and subtle read with plenty of uneasy moments, 19 May 2008
This review is from: Out of a Clear Sky (Hardcover)
This debut novel, Out of a Clear Sky, is ... clever. And I say that in full knowledge of what the word `clever' means to most readers, and that it's a turn-off. But this is the other kind of clever; the kind that leaves a little hole of worry or doubt or expectation in your head as you read and then knits up that gap with perfect timing and economy so that you, the reader, feel satisfied (a) that you were clever enough to spot the thing in the first place and (b) that the writer was only playing with you and knew exactly where and when to answer the question that you'd been asking yourself. As an example (and not to play with spoilers here) my heart did sink the tiniest bit when I found the protagonist was called Manda and her sister Zannah - such outlandish names, I thought, and wondered why. And then I found out why, and the solution was so clever, and so apposite to plot development, that I grinned to myself as I read on.

And I'm not a big birder. The truth is that I have a negative thing about birds. But Sally Hinchcliffe reconciled me to the joys of waiting and watching, and Manda's observations of native species are so perfectly slotted into the main storyline that even a non-birder like me will learn and enjoy. More than that though, the way the birding experiences foreshadow or amplify the human narrative is excellently handled. As I say, clever, in all the best senses of the word. If you enjoy Dibden and du Maurier, I recommend this book to you

Sticklebacks and Snow Globes
Sticklebacks and Snow Globes
by B. A. Goodjohn
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, lyrical, will stay with you, 16 Nov. 2007
There are some characters who stay with you forever. Scout, in To Kill a Mockingbird is one, and Tot, in Sticklebacks and Snowglobes is another.

There's nothing cute or sentimental about Tot, or her story, it's a clear-eyed look at life on a housing estate in the 1970s, with all the historical prejudices, limitations and nastiness. But it's also a story about the power of friendship and the redemptive qualities that communities possess, even if they are sometimes manifested in crooked fashion.

Tot has to contend with an absent father, a sister going through puberty kicking and screaming and a best friend who becomes a boy overnight. There is also the need to cope with mental disability and cultural difference, with poverty and hypocrisy, and Tot observes all this activity through her own set of lenses - the clear but necessarily limited vision of a clever eight year old who sees and hears everything but doesn't always interpet it perfectly.

What makes this book so special though, is the sense of place. Stanley Close is as real as any other character in the book and the imperatives and makeshifts of life on the estate, shape the characters and their stories in fascinating but believable ways. It's a book to treasure and Tot will certainly stay in your memory.

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