the photographer

February 22, 2013


This one stayed with me for a long time after I finished it, and it’s been a strong Myyear gift and recommendation candidate, especially to anyone with an interest in Afghanistan.

A curious hybrid of photos and drawings that works brilliantly, it follows a photographer’s journey accompanying a Doctors without Borders mission through the country. Harsh but full of humanity.

small island

February 22, 2013

‘So I have to give him the sign. All we Jamaican boys know the sign. When a man need to be along with a woman, for reasons only imagination should know, the head is cocked just a little to one side while the eye first open wide then swivel fast to the nearest exit. Even the most fool-fool Jamaican boy can read this sign and would never ignore it in case it should be they that needed it next time.

‘Oh!’ Kenneth say. ‘I must be gone.’


‘My heart take up residence in me boots when he tell me, “Well, I may have told him that his wife seem to like the company of black men. Maybe. I cannot remember. Plenty things said in the heat of the situation.”.


Read. Loved.

burma chronicles

February 19, 2009


Guy Delisle’s latest book was my favourite Christmas present this year. Everyone seemed to think the same, as at one point six of us were reading the book simultaneously. This involved lots of snatched reading while the previous reader was in the shower/had gone shopping/to get a drink. But no fighting (and in fact, quite a lot of considerate leaving outside of bedroom doors after turning in), and I think we all finished it in the end. Surely you couldn’t ask for better testimony.

Delisle seems to have created a bit of an odd niche for himself, depicting life as he experiences it in the more bizzare and/or oppressive corners of the world, like in Pyongyang and Shenzhen. His Burma stay was a little different in that he accompanied his wife there while she worked for MSF, and spent his time mainly drawing and looking after their baby son. His simple line drawings succeed as they have before in describing his adventures in an understated manner (though there seemed to be fairly heavy focus on toilet troubles this time around).

The aid aspect of his wife’s work there may have politicized this book more than his previous ones, but to good effect. That side of his experiences was a bit less developed in his last two books, possibly as the result of his more transitory stay. Even so, I think Delisle struggles here to overcome to ‘otherness’ of the Burmese, perhaps due to the language barrier.

Although the blogging wind fell away from my sails for a while there, this post had to be even more delayed as it was a surprise birthday present to Ms. D… which then took ages to arrive. And when it did, the Bean Counter promptly took control of it during our recent reunion weekend. A charming little read about a country and people that deserve better than the government they have today.


December 19, 2008


I’ve been very selective about joining social/specialist networks until now. Then this week, due to this list of the Top 100 sites for the year ahead and an invitation, I ended up joining two. And have already been told off for not being active enough!

The first, Goodreads, allows you to share books and your ratings and reviews of which with friends. This morning I finally filled in some books (happy now, L?), and I’ve used it a fair amount (considering I’ve only been a member for a week) to see what everyone else is reading and what they thought about it. It also has the added benefit of the best-looking ‘currently reading’ flash-based widget I’ve found so far (despite it not being supported by WordPress!).

Dopplr is different in that it aims to hook you up with your friends during your random wanderings around the world. A recent such coincidence meant I had a great weekend in Boston, but also missed the French Troll (I’m not quite sure how) while attending the same large meeting in LA once. There’s also a Tripadvisor-like section for recommendations and questions, but I think Tripadvisor is still better by far.

The downside with both networks is that they require a certain amount of (manual) data entering to be of any use, though the process is easy in both. Dopplr will suffer more than Goodreads if this isn’t done, but at least for me the number of trips I make is a bit more limited.

I suppose only time will tell which of these sites will thrive and which will just crash and burn, but these are the two that I’ve decided to test. Jeans suggested Tripit and of course fun stuff happens when all these applications collide, like when Moo met Dopplr.

Have you found something cool I should know about?

the story of everything

December 19, 2008


Last night I visited a bookshop in search of a special Christmas book for two very special little boys. Everything I picked up seemed dull and unoriginal until I pulled out The Story of Everything from the bookshelf. This amazing book tells kiddies the history of the world, starting with the Big Bang, through dinosaurs and the ice age until now. In, get this: just 11 explosive, wild pop-ups!

Neal Layton‘s illustrations have a little bit of untamed Quentin Blake about them, and there are tabs to pull, wheels to turn and even a mini book inside the book to read. Best of all, it’s all perfectly factual, which should either answer lots of questions, or lead to more from inquisitive tots. Suitable for ages 4 to 8.

interpretation of murder

November 30, 2008


I read this book so fast that it was almost my undoing. The Interpretation of Murder is set in 1909 New York and is based on Sigmund Freud and his protege Carl Jung’s true visit to the city. However in the book they get caught up in trying to solve an attack by psychoanalysis of the victim.

Rubenfeld crafted his book finely, so that the many threads – of socialite and immigrant New York, Shakespeare, policing and physchology – do all weave well into the neat ending, with no loose bits. But you do need to pay attention, which is why speed-reading is probably not the best way to enjoy this book.

A nice way to learn a bit about many things at once while ‘just’ reading a good thriller.


Contrary to Mr. Snow, I have never stepped foot on African soil. So all my impressions and knowledge are limited to that garnered from photos, films, magazines and in particular books. Among those I’ve enjoyed were the classic ‘Out of Africa‘, ‘Mukiwa‘, the desperately sad and funny ‘Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight‘ and the nuanced and layered ‘Half of a Yellow Sun‘.

By contrast Alexander McCall Smith paints an almost Disney-ish version of Botswana in his series on the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency run by lady detective Precious Ramotswe. I read the first two books when they first came out and recently borrowed ‘The Kalahari Typing School for Men‘ from Special K, when I was after a nice light read.

The book delivered on the latter but not the former. Compared to the first two books, this one remained superficial throughout, and more seriously for a detective book, lacked a good case for Precious to get her teeth into.

McCall Smith’s loving little odes to Botswana  are kept to a minimum here, as he seems to pine for a disappeared old Botswana, with only the smallest of nods to the country’s ongoing HIV epidemic. A pity for the charming cast that just seems to have run out of plot.

water for elephants

November 8, 2008


Someone who loves books at least as much if not more than me lent this to me, and I started then put it on hold during my trip to Boston. Superficially it’s a circus love story, but it’s Gruen’s extensive background research that animates all the details of the train circus specifically and the depression era in America. I very much enjoyed the archival photos from real circuses – such as the Ringling Brothers – from that time that illustrate the book.

The story – of a young man who joins the circus after a family tragedy – takes off from page one and continues at breakneck speed until the very end. I have to confess I found the pace a little exhausting overall, especially the repeated episodes of the narrator’s being thumped then bouncing back, only to be thumped… again. Also, the narrative tool of having a 90-year old character tell the story in a series of flashbacks quickly got irritating at best, and was contrived at worst.

These two criticisms aside, the story itself convincingly conveys the magic of a brand-new love affair, which the backdrop of the variously ferocious, cheeky and gentle circus animals successfully enhances. And all the to-ing and fro-ing proves worthwhile as the book hurtles towards its surprisingly strong, neat ending. Good for bringing out the romantic in you, and, best of all as the interview with Gruen in the back reveals, many of the events, characters and elephants in the book were real, taken from her interviews with circus folk. Paradoxically, the historical setting made this book a little more magical for me.

parrot in a pepper tree

November 6, 2008

A Parrot in  The Pepper Tree is Chris Stewart‘s second outing as an author, as opposed to being an Andalusian farmer, a sheep shearer in Sweden or the drummer for Genesis. His first, Driving Over Lemons, was so charming and amusing that it was just a matter of time before this landed on my shelves too.

His self-deprecating, gently bumbling style of writing works well when recounting the trials and tribulations of running a remote mountain farm with a family. Which, despite his funny take on almost everything, must have been painfully difficult at times. Best of all are his endearing encounters with the unsophisticated Alpujarran locals, which would be almost rude if he didn’t clearly love them so much.

All of these elements are present in his second book, although this book one seems more cobbled together from the various chapters in his life, such that the narrative thread is weaker. The book suffers as a result, though the writing is equally likeable.

Reviews of his third book seem equally mixed, with some liking it more and others less than this one. It seems to include some grittier themes, with the arrival of Moroccan immigrants to Southern Spain in search of work. I’m not sure I would have read it otherwise, but as it is I’ve just been checking to see if the library might have a copy for me…

call of the mall

November 4, 2008

I know, shopping is so out, isn’t it? But those of you who know me will also know that I fall for a particular kind of design in marketing with the same certainty as the sun will rise tomorrow. The composite image above (and especially that of the birds on the branch wine bottles) illustrates that design particularly well. No matter what the object actually is, I’ll pick it off the shelf in a split second. But luckily these days, looking is enough for me. That, and the overpowering sense of all the things that we have at home.

Paco Underhill’s catchily titled ‘Why We Buy‘ and ‘Call of the Mall‘ seek to understand the dynamics of the product moving off the shelf into my hand better, though I haven’t read either. It might help me build my barriers better.