Monday, 23 April 2018

FOUR SEASONS IN NEPAL by Nicola McGunnigle

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.  It is available in paperback only.  You can read more about it and see lots of great photos on the author's blog, and read delightful sections with her sons' views of Nepal, HERE.

Genre: Travel memoir, Nepal, aid work.

Four Seasons in Nepal is an account of the year the author and her family (husband and two young sons) spent a year in the country after the devastating earthquake of 2015; Nicola was to work with the NGO International Nepal Fellowship (INF).  This book describes the decision to go, the journey, how the family settled in, became used to the customs and made friends with the locals.  It tells of her activity in the post-earthquake rehabilitation programme, the GRACE project, in which she would work closely with others to rebuild schools, houses, and (most importantly) the wellbeing and morale of the communities.

This is an in-depth account of the year, about how they adapted to such difficulties as being without power for an extended period of time, but, most of all, how the work of the project helped the victims of the earthquake.  I envied the McGunnigle family the experience, and, of course, felt great respect for all that the INF do.

That the decision to go out to Nepal and help these people is a worthy one is indisputable, but my job is to review the book itself.  I gather it originated from blog posts, and in places I felt that there was too much detail, as if Nicola had written down every single memory and every thought that occurred to her, which makes it a very dense book.  Such detail works in short blog posts, but is rather a lot to wade through in a whole book; and I thought that it being chopped down by a third/edited a little more tightly would have made it more compelling.

Having said this, I would most certainly recommend the book to anyone who is thinking of going to Nepal for similar work; in such a case I'd say it is probably essential reading, as there is no stone left unturned.  From the point of view of someone who just likes reading travel memoirs and is interested in this part of the world, like me, I think it's more of a book to dip into here and there, reading odd chapters, rather than sitting down and reading it from cover to cover ~ rather like you would read a blog, I suppose!

The cover is beautiful, and the book is well presented, with some lovely photographs at the end.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

SAPIENS: A brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari @harari_yuval

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Amazon browse; I'd listened to some of the follow-up, Homo Deus, on audio, and knew I had to read this.

Genre: Non-Fiction, anthropology, history, sociology, psychology....

Loved, loved, loved this book.  It is, as per the title, a brief history of humankind, but not just a physical one, ie, how we evolved into Homo Sapiens, but how our cultures evolved, how we group together socially, how the leaders of any society divide and rule by engendering explores our basic xenophobia, the good and evil of empire, how they are born and why they fall, the roots and effects, both positive and negative, of the Agricultural, Scientific and Industrial Revolutions ~ it looks at us, as a species, by standing away and observing.

Most interesting is the Homo Sapiens' invention of such imaginary concepts as religion, individual nations and money, which require the belief of millions of people around the globe to exist at all.  I can't believe I thought economics was such a boring subject when I was younger; the history of how money evolved and the explanation of how capitalism works had me glued to the pages.

There are so many great snippets of historical detail, too ~ have you heard of the ancient Numantians, who lived in small mountain town and resisted Roman invasion far more valiantly than most countries?  No, nor had I.  I never knew exactly how the Dutch became so powerful several hundred years ago, before I read this, what the Mississipi Bubble was and how it led to the French Revolution, or about Henry Rawlinson who first deciphered cuneiform script, that taught us so much about ancient civilisations.  I hadn't known exactly how Buddhism originated or understood its basis, or known how the belief in the superiority of the Aryan race began. 

This is not written in heavy text book fashion, if you're wondering; for such an informative tome, it is remarkably 'easy read', which, I imagine, explains its success.  It made me think about the smallness of seemingly important current events within the great expanse of time (and Bede's famous quote, which I'll put at the end), how each tiny sociological shift, each scientific development may have great effect in the long term, or none at all, and we have no way of knowing which it will be.  'Is the (current) upsurge of monotheistic fundamentalism the wave of the future or a local whirlpool of little long-term significance?  Are we heading towards ecological disaster or technological paradise?  There are good arguments to be made for all of these outcomes, but no way of knowing for sure.  In a few decades, people will look back and think that the answers to these questions were obvious'.

Chapters about the present are frightening enough.  The section about how we treat animals in order to fulfil our desires for meat and dairy products should be enough to turn anyone vegan.  Not only that, but:

'Every year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the world'. 

'Most Christians do not imitate Christ, most Buddhists fail to follow Buddha ... in contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal.... It has succeeded.  This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do.'

But even more worrying is the last chapter, about our possible future in which natural selection may be replaced 'by intelligent design, through biological engineering, cyborg engineering or the engineering of inorganic life'.  It's already starting, but after reading this I'm glad I won't be around to see what happens.

It's a great book.  Everyone should read it.

*Quote by Bede, from The Ecclesiastical History of the English people:

“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.”

Saturday, 14 April 2018

BAD BLOOD WILL OUT by William Savage @penandpension

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member, but I would have bought it anyway as I have read and enjoyed all of Mr Savage's books.

Genre: 18th century murder mystery.

This is the fourth in the Ashmole Foxe series of 18th century murder mysteries.  Foxe is a dapper entrepreneur living in the centre of Norwich.  Officially, he is a bookseller and purveyor of rare volumes, but in reality he has little interest in his shop, leaving it to be run by the reliable Mrs Crombie.  Aside from this, Foxe dabbles his fingers in many pies, not least of all the solving of murders to which he is often referred by the Alderman and other leading lights in the city.

In Bad Blood Will Out, Foxe is presented with two murders: one is that of a wealthy chandler, the other an actor in the White Swan theatre.  At first Foxe dismisses the latter, but finds his thoughts returning to it over and over.  His days are busy; he is also obliged to play host to his nephew Nicholas, who has come to the city to learn how to become a businessman.  As the early chapters progress, Foxe soon finds that, despite the presence of the odious Postgate, the theatre stage manager he and most others detest, he cannot resist delving into the White Swan murder - which soon becomes murders in the plural.

Like all of William Savage's books, Bad Blood Will Out is a highly readable mix of intricate plot construction and wonderful characters; Ashmole Foxe remains a delight, and the other characters are all fully rounded, with plenty of subtle humour in the dialogue.  The time and place is beautifully illustrated, with a backdrop of the world of 18th century theatre.

A stunning first chapter about a fire at the theatre some years before had my interest well and truly piqued, and the unfolding plot lived up to expectations (and the murder weapon had me stumped!).  I did wish, on occasion, that more events were shown in the same way as that first chapter, rather than being described/reported to Foxe, but this is just the personal preference of one who likes stories told from several points of view; I certainly enjoyed this novel and am sure Mr Savage's many readers will find it every bit as charming as all the others.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

THE LAST ENGLISHMAN by Keith Foskett @KeithFoskett

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I'd read Balancing On Blue by this author, and had to read another one!

Genre: non-fiction, memoir ~ hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

'Human beings have spent  the vast majority of their existence in the wild - towns and cities are a relatively recent concept and, although they make us feel secure, we are not meant to be there.  They are not our natural surroundings.'

In The Last Englishman, Keith Foskett starts out on the first of his US thru-hikes, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which runs from Mexico to the Canadian border.  It was most interesting to read this after Balancing On Blue (about the AT~ Appalachian Trail), because at times this hike seemed almost like a learning process for the AT, in which he made errors he would not repeat in the latter, like taking too many 'zeros' (resting days), not working out exactly how many miles he needed to walk each day, spending too long in the towns for re-supplying, etc.   Before he reached Oregon, he realised that the bad weather was going to overtake him.

As well as being an account of the hike, Keith's narrative often wanders off, as his mind must have done each day on the trail, into the right and wrongs of how he wants to live his life, compared with what he feels society expects of him, though he appears to be at peace with this now.  More on this subject later, after the book review.  

This isn't only an interesting story—I think it should be read by anyone considering embarking on such an adventure, because it tells what it is really like, on a day-to-day basis, the down-sides and difficulties as well as all the good stuff.  It's honest, and you don't feel that Keith's motivation is to show himself in a good light, which, of course, makes him more likeable.  He wrestles with his fear of snakes and bears (and some of the bear encounters are truly frightening), experiences the danger of serious dehydration, meets many like-minded souls, and talks about food, a lot (I particularly like the account of Nick Levy's unorthodox ways of obtaining it....), the mozzies (always a problem), the physical strain on the body.  He talks about how hikers are perceived by the townsfolk when back in civilisation, and the simple joy of walking in the woods.

'One of my most enjoyable experiences was listening to the wind rush through the forest.  It struck me several times how simple this phenomenon was.  It transported me to an almost primitive era, before technology took over the free time of collective society.  No other sounds intruded'

There are quotes from other hikers at the beginning of each chapter (I liked these, a lot), delightful tales of 'trail magic' (the generosity of non-hiking, sometimes anonymous friends of the trail who leave supplies for hikers), accounts of the thru-hiking maestros who break all speed records (fascinating!), the psychological reasons why some drop out half-way, and an excellent section about some of the daft, ancient laws in the US and England that have never been repealed; for instance, in West Virginia, children cannot attend school with their breath smelling of wild onions.

I knocked a half star off for blog purposes (though still 5* 'I loved it' on Amazon!) because I think this book is in need of some trail maps along the way.  I didn't feel the need for them in the previous book because I know more about the geography of the eastern US, but in this I sometimes got a bit lost.  Also, photographs would raise it to another level.  One other thing, which doesn't matter a jot in the great scheme of things and some will consider a petty niggle but it massively gets on my nerves, is the use of the word 'I' when it should be 'me' (as in 'so as usual, he said he'd catch Trooper and I up').  Editor: a simple explanation of how to get it right HERE.

I found that I liked this book more and more as it went on, and read the last 40% in one go, snuggled up in bed and trying to imagine being snuggled up in my sleeping bag in a tent when it was snowing outside, like in Keith and Trooper's valiant push through snowdrifts to the end of the trail.  Lastly, there are some stories from other hikers about their life post-PCT; the one by 'Flyboxer' is heartrending.  Then there's a list from Keith about the reasons 'why' ~ I loved this.  I loved the book, as a whole, and would recommend it even if the closest you will get to hiking the PCT is looking at videos of it on youtube.  Now, which one of Keith Foskett's books shall I read next?


*Not part of the book review*

Keith's books are bringing up some memories for me.  I mentioned in the review of Balancing on Blue that, after travelling canals on a barge for only a few weeks, I found being back in the 'real' world horribly depressing.  This one made me remember when I began my first job, as a secretary in a solicitor's office.  I sat there, on that first afternoon, thinking, 'this is what you have to do, 8 hours a day, forever, just so you can have a roof over your head?'  I felt as though I was in prison.  

A couple of months after starting this job, my boyfriend and I travelled around North Wales for a couple of weeks, sleeping in his van and doing stuff like walking up Snowden and traipsing round all the wonderful castles.  I lived in jeans, jumpers and walking boots, washed up in the kitchen of a brilliant hikers' cafe in Llanberis Pass in exchange for food when we ran out of money, and felt totally happy.  Going back to my job 6 hours after we got back was so awful I didn't know how I could possibly carry on doing it.  It wasn't just post-holiday blues, it was the feeling that I was in the wrong place.  Of course, what I should have done was to go and get a job in an outward bound centre, or something, but I didn't have the confidence to think 'outside the box' because I was brought up that the right and only way was the middle-class norm of studying hard at school, going to university (I had already disappointed my parents by being 'asked to leave' school half way through my 'A' levels), establishing yourself in a career in which you will slowly rise, buying property and then better property so that you can have a family and bring them up to do exactly the same thing. 

As my parents got older, they relaxed in their expectations of us; Dad was really proud of me for having my own shop for a few years and, later, writing books that people actually buy, even if I haven't become or married an accountant and bought the sort of house he and Mum lived in.  I should have had the confidence not to try to fit a wiggly peg into a square hole from the word go; I should have done stuff like walking the AT before my knees got too knackered to walk more than five miles without them hurting!  Now in my autumn years (and it's my favourite season 😉), I keep being reminded that you only get one life and it's short ~ you have to do what you want.  I have, mostly, but I do have regrets about not travelling.  Please, if you're in your 20s and 30s and feel the need, just do it ~ you can worry about the small stuff later!

I'm currently trying to persuade a friend that she absolutely should rent out her flat and go to live in the old hippie style community for over fifties in Spain (yoga, painting, etc) that she keeps looking at, instead of worrying about keeping all her savings in her bank account for a rainy day.  Fuck the rainy day.  Unlike me, she is very sociable, and she's a yoga teacher; it would suit her down to the ground, and she knows this, she's just scared of taking the leap.  I tried saying to her, 'What would make you happier?  Living in that fab place in Spain with all those like-minded people, or sitting on your sofa looking at all the noughts on your bank statement?' 

In 1971, my father and some of his friends started up a walking group they called The Strollers.  They used to do countryside hikes once or twice a week, often at night time (and always finishing in a pub), and would go away for walking weekends.  Dad was still walking with them into his eighties, and was the last remaining original member; many of the newer generation were at his funeral last October.  The Stroller's motto, on their emblems, was 'Ambulare Sit Vivere' ~ To Walk is to Live.  

In another life, maybe Dad and I would have walked the Appalachian Trail, too. 😎

Monday, 2 April 2018

BALANCING ON BLUE by Keith Foskett @KeithFoskett

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads


How I discovered this book: I read about the author on the Five on Friday feature on Jill's Book Cafe, and knew I had to read one of his books.  I chose this one, about the Appalachian trail, because one can only read Bill Bryson's A Walk In The Woods so many times.  😉

Genre: Travel memoir ~ thru-hiking the AT

I loved reading this book, at the same time as it making me feel really pissed off because I wasn't there, doing it, and now I (very probably) never will be.  I was glad I've read BB's A Walk In The Woods, because I recognised some landmarks, even the names of shelters, and was familiar with the basics of such an endeavour, not least of all the superiority of the 'thru-hiker' compared with the day hikers (I detected the hierarchy, even in such a goodwill-filled world!), the mechanics of daily living, and the reasons why people (like Bill Bryson) drop out.

When I'd finished the book I went to Keith's site and looked at the photos ~ it was great to put faces to some of the names.  They're HERE.

At the beginning, before 'Fozzie's' adventure starts, there are short first-person pieces introducing some of the hikers with whom Keith walked his many miles.  I particularly liked the story of 'PJ' (thru-hikers all have their 'trail names') ~ he got out of bed one morning, told his wife he was going to hike the AT, and would not be coming back.  Just one slight criticism that isn't really a criticism ~ I think they would have been twice as effective if dropped in here and there, throughout the book, when we'd got to 'know' the person on the trail.  Lazagne, Thirsty and co all appear at the end, too, to talk about their life post-AT.

Keith and his friends have much in common: a desire to live life their own way, a dislike of authority for authority's sake, the need for solitude, peace, to be out in the wild and lead a more simple life, away from the constraints of modern society.  I found myself smiling a lot, feeling much the same.  'I didn't like being told what to do by my parents, bosses, friends or my teachers, and I still struggle with it.'

Interspersed with the hike story are passages about the history of the trail, about the early hikers, the other great trails of the US—and a grisly murder or two.  Mostly, though, it's a journal about the journey.  Nothing much happens, but it's fascinating.  It's all about whether or not you can tell a story, really, isn't it?

My favourite parts were the accounts of the author's time alone, about the weather and the beauty of the trail, his thoughts.  'I lived in the woods, respected them and in return they looked after me.  They shaded me from the fierce sun and shielded me from strong winds ... occasionally a pool or creek would offer itself up so I could wash and every single night two stout trees held me aloft as I slept in my hammock.  The woods provided firewood for the colder nights and during the warmer nights the smoke chased away the mosquitos.  I was given logs to sit on or trunks to rest my back against.'

But it's not all ponderous and poetic - there is much about the jolly cameraderie, and also the problems faced on a daily basis ~ not only aches, pains, hunger and a slight depression once they neared the end, simply because it was ending, but also the perils of 'crotch rot'. 😨  One thing that stuck in mind was the curious two-seater privy in Maine, with a cribbage board thoughtfully placed in between. Like Keith, I thought, who on earth decided anyone might want to a) do the business in company and b) play cribbage while doing so?

I loved some of the observations, like how 'apart' he felt from 'normal' life after just a week or so on the trail, when he would leave it for a day to go into a town to restock, do laundry, etc, and it felt all wrong.  I remember that feeling after spending a few weeks on a barge in the parallel world of canals. I was amused to read that the author has post apocalypse fantasies, as I do ~ for me, it's about all the 21st century crap being over, and the challenge to survive.  And about discovering what is really important.  As Keith points out, in the world of the AT, just the knowledge that the next shelter actually had a door and a proper floor was something to get excited about.

This bit: There were virtually no buildings, no one in authority, no signs stating orders, no man-made noise, and there was no need to be in a certain place at a certain time... I believe making this connection with nature reminds our bodies and minds of a long time ago when we were truly free.  We all came from the wilds.  The history, although long gone and forgotten for all of us, still occupies a small space in the back of our minds.  Somewhere, subconsciously, our minds remember the woods where we spent our infancy, and spending time there rekindles those distant times in our past.  It was home.  

There's so much I want to put in this review ~ the sad fox in the Trailside zoo who Keith wanted to free, a confirmation for him that you really can't give a female hiker the trail name 'Pink Bits' (!), so many quotes and examples of the beauty, the generosity of strangers; I highlighted so much, but it's far too long already.  Anyway, I loved it.  I shall now go and download his adventures on the Pacific Coast Trail, and I can't wait to read about the Continental Divide!

ps, if you like this sort of book, you would probably also like Into The Wild and Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer