‘Running With the Kenyans; Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth’ by Adharanand Finn (Faber and Faber; Bloomsbury) I bought this book for one of my daughters last Christmas as she is very interested in sport and fitness and is an athlete herself. She loved reading the book and when she had finished I asked her, ‘So, why are the Kenyans such fast runners?’ She looked at me, raised her eyebrows and said, ‘Well, you’ll have to read the book!’ It was actually great advice because firstly I really enjoyed reading this book and secondly there are many reasons and situations that combine to make the Kenyans such fast runners. Finn is an English sports writer who enjoys running and competing in marathons. He decides to take his young family to Kenya so he can live and run with the locals and try to work out why, for such a small nation, they produce such an enormous number of the very fastest runners in the world. We follow Finn’s love of running and his interest in people as he travels and competes in Kenya. He meets elite runners, trainers, managers and talks in detail about the intricacies of their culture, history, responsibilities, techniques, diet, education, physique, expectations and personalities in Kenya that make these runners tick. I found this book an enlightening read about runners and their drive plus an immersion into a strong and fascinating culture.
Read my interview with Adharanand Finn here.
‘Alex & Me; How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence – and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process’ by Irene M. Pepperberg (Scribe) Pepperberg is an American research professor and this book covers her life of care, love and research of birds and her astounding findings. In 1977 Pepperberg bought an African Grey parrot which she named Alex. At this stage the world believed that birds did not possess any potential for conscious thought and decision making. Over the next 30 years Pepperberg worked with Alex and we follow their struggles, setbacks and their unexpected and stunning achievements. Pepperberg taught Alex to think and talk – not to mimic, but to relate to her questions and then independently answer them. Alex added numbers, could tell what colours items were, what shapes they were, knew when he wanted to go back to his perch or to eat and communicated all this; he had his own thoughts and intentions. Pepperberg shows that for a creature who had ‘the brain the size of a shelled walnut’ his cognitive abilities and intelligence were not to be underestimated; he developed skills that no one thought were possible. The two became very attached and when Alex died at 31 years old, he said to Pepperberg, ‘You be good. I love you’. Amazing! Pepperberg shows her love for animals, urges us not to dismiss creatures just because they may have a small sized brain and opens up a world of possibilities with her scientific findings.
Read my interview with Irene M. Pepperberg here.
Visit Irene M. Pepperberg’s website here.
‘Life On Air’ by David Attenborough (BBC; Random House) This book just gallops along; it’s easy to read because you can hear Attenborough’s voice reading it to you; it’s written just as he speaks and he has a wonderful sense of humour. I knew of Attenborough as the presenter of nature shows on TV, but this book was a great insight into the start of television in England, the later development of more channels, his travels, the stories of his documentaries and the development of camera and film. From a young presenter who worked on live TV with animals brought in to the studio to discuss, Attenborough thought it would be more interesting to travel to see the animals in their natural habitat. His enthusiasm sees him travel to a huge variety of often previously unfilmed locations including being taken by boat to Komodo; when, after being at sea for days on end and seemingly lost, he says to the captain, ‘You have BEEN to Komodo, haven’t you?’ the captain answers ‘Not yet’. Attenborough meets notorious cannibals with an extended hand of goodwill and a greeting of ‘Good morning’, was mistaken for the Duke of Edinburgh (apparently it sounded like the name David Attenborough on early radio waves), recalled a wonderful story of his Christmas message broadcast with the Queen, his meeting with both Joy Adamson who looked after lions and Dian Fossey who researched gorillas and his embracement of new film, lenses and recording breakthroughs. After I had read the book, I was fortunate enough to see and listen to a very engaging Attenborough at a talk. His passion and love for his work and the natural environment is utterly contagious and makes me want to watch his ground-breaking documentaries all over again.
‘Round the World in Eighty Dishes’ by Lesley Blanch (Grub Street) When I was a few chapters into this wonderful book, I thought ‘Who IS this woman?’ Lesley Blanch was a features editor at ‘Vogue’, a gourmet who travelled far and wide and lived to 107! Her book is a retelling of her observations of cultures and recipes during her extensive travel whilst most people’s travel and eating experiences were limited during the post-World War I era. Through her eyes we see first-hand accounts of people, architecture, national dress and customs that she recorded in The Balkans, The Middle East, Africa, The Far East, The Pacific, Central and South America which are enhanced by her own quirky and fun illustrations. For each country and dish she has wonderful anecdotes, history and stories all told in a very conversational style; General MacMahon in the Napoleonic Wars who, when told that the fish could have no sauce as there was nothing left but some oil and a few eggs replied, ‘Then look sharp and make a sauce with them’ (thus mahonnaise – which become mayonnaise – was created), bonfires and Gypsy music that Blanch enjoyed on the beach after fishing catches were hauled in on the beaches in Portugal, eating with puppeteers in Sicily, rose-leaf jam in Turkey and supping with hunters who still had their falcons perched on their shoulders in North Africa. The stories and recipes brought to mind a dear friend of mine; for many years our families celebrated a different country every few months with food, drinks and trivia. On these days we have enjoyed French snails, Mexican hot chocolate with chili and making croissants from scratch. I am really looking forward to having you travel back home soon, Kate.
‘Le Road Trip; A Traveler’s Journal of Love and France’ by Vivian Swift (Bloomsbury). Thank you to my dear childhood friend, Meredith, who recommended this book; it’s so wonderful to have found you and have you back in my life. Beautifully illustrated by Swift, this is a carefully designed and presented book about the American author’s honeymoon in France. It takes you off the beaten path to Normandy, Brittany, Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, Chartres and back to Paris. Swift portrays the ups and downs of her trip (such as the unexpected delight of seeing couples waltz on a bridge in Paris and the frustration of travelling so far so see a less- than-impressive group of rocks) and compares travelling to relationships. Peppered with interesting facts such as The Bayeux Tapestry (who knew that in 1885 an English woman decided to gather a group to create a replica of the Tapestry?), the differences between the Louis XIV, XV and XVI styles and the labyrinth set into the floor of Chartres Cathedral which many people puzzle-out on their knees!. I loved learning that in the early 1980s a specific shade of vert-de-gris was mandated for all public furniture to give harmony for the public spaces in the city, the different shapes and names of bread and Mont Saint-Michel; a monastery built on top of a granite mountain in a plain of quicksand! The use of space, graphics and typeface make this a really enjoyable book to read and to dip back into.
Read my interview with Vivian Swift here.
‘The Happiest Refugee; A Memoir’ by Anh Do (Allen & Unwin) This book was given to my husband for Christmas. Whilst reading it he would burst out in to uncontrollable laughter with tears rolling down his checks. Once he gathered himself together he would say, ‘Listen to THIS!’ and read me a passage. I had to read it. I knew Anh Do’s face as a comedian on TV, but I didn’t know his story. As a child, Do left war-torn Vietnam under extraordinary circumstances on a very overcrowded refugee boat and battled high seas, drifting, hunger, dehydration and pirates to reach the Australia. Starting a new life in Australia he excelled at school and tried to overcome the many obstacles in his way socially and culturally. We see his trials and set-backs as Do moves from law to comedy and success. We enjoy Do’s wonderful and honest sense of humour as he speaks of the clothes his brother humbly wore when they arrived in Australia, his stand-up comedy bookings and the clash of cultures at his engagement party. This was a funny, uplifting book which was a great insight into the plight of refugees. After I read the book I went to listen to Do speak. He was incredibly funny and engaging. The whole audience was roaring with laughter at his anecdotes, photos and commentary. His story is one of happiness, being grateful and of hope.
‘Tuesdays With Morrie; An Old Man, A Young Man, & Life’s Greatest Lesson’ by Mitch Albom (Hodder; Hachette) This was an intriguing story of American Albom who hears that his favourite former university professor, Morrie Schwartz, is very unwell. Albom visits his professor and continues to travel to see him weekly for fourteen weeks, on Tuesdays. The pair sit in Schwartz’s study at his home and the professor imparts little gems of wisdom from his childhood, reactions to newspaper stories, current affairs, to family and the importance of relationships. Albom calls their times and discussions ‘their last thesis together’. The joy of this book is Schwartz’s honesty and wit and the journey he talks us on, via Albom, through discussions of renewal, identity, honesty, finding and retaining happiness. It makes you think of fabulous teachers and mentors and what a powerful role they had in your lives and were able to ‘turn on a switch;’ and engage you in their subject. I know who some of mine were; an art teacher that made me literally run to class to hear more about the techniques and history of art, an English teacher who had us all begging to finish the chapter before going to the next class and a choir teacher that instilled a life-long love of singing. This was a thought-provoking and poignant book.
‘Let Me Tell You a Story; A Memoir of a Wartime Childhood’ by Renata Calverley (Bloomsbury) Calverley was born in 1937 in Poland and as a Jewish child she witnessed unbelievable, inhumane horror. Having lost her beloved mother and grandmother who didn’t return from work at the Jewish ghetto, she was left at the age of 5 years old with no one to look after her. Hidden in a variety of temporary places she escaped a sniffer dog when her aunt and cousin are removed and shot and was ironically saved at an orphanage by her Ayrian looks. Throughout her childhood books are Calverley’s escape and coping mechanism. From when her grandmother initially suggests ‘Let me tell you a story’ when there are gunshots outside, to when a stranger who is paid to hide her teaches her how to read, Calverley learnt how to ‘fly’ into stories when she was doing hard physical labour and focusing on survival. She was told and later re-told to others stories when there were no books to break the boredom and divert fear and, when she is removed from the orphanage, Calverley’s speaks of the joy of a limited wartime library. Indeed stories and books, when they are available, become crucial and an intricate part of Calverley’s survival. A visit to the Jewish Museum brought back all the horror of this era and it was admirable that Calverley found salvation in the magic of stories although the trauma she must have experienced is unfathomable.
Read my interview with Renata Calverley here.
‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ by Li Cunxin (Penguin) Ballet, books and culture; all things I love. This was a wonderful read about Li’s childhood in Qingdao, China under Mao Zedong’s rule and the implications that had on his family life, education, standard of living and opportunities. From a humble, rural background Li is the sixth of seven sons. His fate turned when he was 11 years old when a delegation from Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy visited his school scouting for dancers. Li was eventually chosen to attend the Dance Academy and he was plunged into a strict regime of exercise and discipline. Simply and clearly written, this book is a treasure trove of Chinese culture, the finale of Mao Zedong China, the rigours of dance and the effects of inspirational teachers and mentors. Excelling at dance, Li later moved to USA and then Australia where he is now Artistic Director of the Queensland Ballet and is married to an Australian born ballerina. Li’s story is not only astounding, but profoundly inspirational. How I love ballet and admire the dancers with their discipline, creativity and elegant lines. A friend of mine, Lynne, tells me of a time when she was visiting a friend of hers in Queensland and her friend’s neighbour dropped in; it was Li!
Read my interview with Li Cunxin here.
Visit Li Cunxin’s website here.
‘The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating’ by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (Text Publishing) I admit that I was intrigued by the title of this book! What sound does a while snail make and who can hear it? Bailey has a long illness from a virulent flu which keeps her bedridden for months at a time. A friend brings her a gift of a pot plant which has a woodland snail amongst the foliage. For many days Tova Bailey is so unwell that all she can do is to watch the snail from her bed. She becomes intrigued by its anatomy, eating habits and nocturnal travels. The process and the snail renews her and, in turn, our sense of wonder and helps Tova Bailey through a difficult time. Bailey talks about the snail seeming to be confident that whatever it was looking for was just a few inches ahead and so it continues on and, in turn, Tova Bailey is able to keep going. Absorbed in snail watching, Bailey feels that time had flown by, unnoticed. The book is written in a slow, delicate, reflective style which enthuses us to appreciate the small things and appreciate the natural world. It is a personal story of the healing power of nature. I cannot see a snail and watch it’s slow movement and beautifully structured shells now without thinking of this book.
Read my interview with Elisabeth Tova Bailey here.