The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily

Format: Paperback
The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of SicilyThe Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily
by Theresa Maggio
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780738208008
Publication Date: April 4, 2003
Pages: 246
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Perseus Publishing

Thoroughly average.  While Maggio had moments in the book where she really brought the villages to life, overall the narrative fell flat and failed to do justice to what I’m sure is a beautiful and rapidly disappearing way of life.  It was one of those books that was interesting enough to keep reading, but not so interesting as to make it hard to put the book down.

I suppose it’s for the best, as the book hasn’t dampened my desire to go to Sicily, but neither did it light a fire of “must plan a trip NOW” magnitude, which given current conditions might have proved more frustrating that reading a bland book.

Running with Sherman

Running with Sherman: The Donkey that Survived Against All Odds and Raced Like a ChampionRunning with Sherman: The Donkey that Survived Against All Odds and Raced Like a Champion
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781781258279
Publication Date: July 2, 2020
Pages: 338
Genre: Memoir, Non-fiction
Publisher: Profile Books

When barefoot running guru Christopher McDougall takes in a neglected donkey, his aim is to get Sherman back to reasonable health. But Sherman is ill-tempered, obstinate and uncooperative - and it's clear his poor treatment has made him deeply fearful of humans. Christopher knows that donkeys need a purpose - they are working, pack animals - and so when he learns of the sport of Burro Racing or running with donkeys, he sets out to give Sherman something worth living for.

With the aid of Christopher's menagerie on his farm in rural Pennsylvania, his wife Mika and their friends and neighbours including the local Amish population, Sherman begins to build trust in Christopher. To give him a purpose, they start to run together. But what Sherman gains in confidence and meaning is something we all need: a connection with nature, the outdoors, with movement. And as Christopher learns, the side benefits of exercise and animal contact are surprising, helping with mental and physical health in unexpected ways.


A good friend of mine – whose idea of a good time is competing in triathlons –  and I met for our weekly coffee/tea a couple of weeks ago, and she said “I have a book I think you’d like.”  I looked at her with heavy scepticism, because she reads running books and cookbooks, and I’d rather starve than cook, and be eaten rather than run.  “No, really; it’s written by a runner, but it’s about a donkey and I SWEAR nothing bad happens to the donkey, and it’s ends happily.”  She knows me well.

So I brought the book home, and when MT saw it, he said, with heavy scepticism, “Is that supposed to be for me to read?”, thereby proving that the only person he thought less likely to be interested in the book than himself, was me.  So I started explaining how the book ended up on our coffee table and as I did, I opened it to the first page.

And was completely captivated.  I don’t mean “oh, this actually looks good” in an idle sort of way, I mean once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop and I heard MT ask about 30 minutes later: “Did you mean to start reading that now?”  Er… no, but shhh…

Part of this easy engagement definitely stemmed from my friend’s assurances that the story ended well; if she hadn’t sworn up and down that this was so, I’d have thrown the book down before I got to page 2 and refused to touch it again.  The donkey may end up in a great place, but he doesn’t start there.  Horrifying fact: donkey’s hooves never stop growing; they have to be trimmed or else they start curling upwards.

The story in a nutshell is this: the author, a runner, agrees to shelter and rehabilitate a donkey rescued from a hoarder.  Part of the donkey’s recovery success depends on being given a purpose, and at a loss for anything more purposeful, and with a secret curiosity about the sport of donkey racing, the author starts the donkey on the long path from death’s door to racing fit.

That nutshell makes it sound like it’s still more about racing than the more sedentary reader would like, but it isn’t.  This book is about the donkey – Sherman – and his fellow goat and equine friends, Lawrence, Flower and Matilda; it’s about the people involved in helping Sherman be his best donkey self, and, as filler to pad out the page count, a lot of interesting asides about related topics, such as the history of donkey racing (honest to god, it’s a thing), the people involved in racing donkeys, the benefits of animal/human relations, the benefits and dangers (in excess) of athletic training, depression, and the Amish.  Yes, the Amish.  It works.

McDougall is, at heart, a journalist, and the writing style and narrative reflect that.  It’s well written and an easy read, but it lacks that formal, reserved style sometimes found in similar books.  It’s chatty, and his personality comes through clearly, as does Sherman’s and his furry friends.  Who are awesome, by the way.

Running with Sherman is the best kind of feel good book, where the animal triumphs in the end, and everybody wins.  As the reader who’d rather be eaten than run (not really, but it’s a close thing), I’d happily recommend this book to anybody looking for an easy but worthwhile read.  Even MT is planning on reading it.

To See Every Bird on Earth

To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong ObsessionTo See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession
by Dan Koeppel
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781594630019
Publication Date: May 5, 2005
Pages: 278
Genre: Memoir, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Hudson Street Press

What drives a man to travel to sixty countries and spend a fortune to count birds? And what if that man is your father?

Richard Koeppel’s obsession began at age twelve, in Queens, New York, when he first spotted a Brown Thrasher, and jotted the sighting in a notebook. Several decades, one failed marriage, and two sons later, he set out to see every bird on earth, becoming a member of a subculture of competitive bird watchers worldwide all pursuing the same goal. Over twenty-five years, he collected over seven thousand species, becoming one of about ten people ever to do so.

To See Every Bird on Earth explores the thrill of this chase, a crusade at the expense of all else—for the sake of making a check in a notebook. A riveting glimpse into a fascinating subculture, the book traces the love, loss, and reconnection between a father and son, and explains why birds are so critical to the human search for our place in the world.


The other day, I was having my weekly coffee with friends when one of them said to me, (in relation to a FB post of mine she’d recently seen): “You’ve become a real Twitcher, haven’t you?”

I hadn’t started this book yet, but my answer was a resounding “no” for several reasons, though it was hard to really define them for her.  Now that I have finished this book, it’s much easier, and I’ll get back to that at the end of my post.

To See Every Bird on Earth is meant to be, if you believe what it says on the wrapper, a book that explores the thrill of the chase across the world to witness as many of the earth’s birds as possible in a lifetime.   There’s some of that, but mostly, it’s the culmination of what I’m guessing was a lot of therapy for the author; a psychological catharsis of his family’s dysfunction, written and published.  In many ways, this book was marketed to the wrong demographic; those that find personal substance in others’ stories about personal journeys would find a lot to like in this book.  Needless to say, it’s not my jam.

BUT having said that, in between the family drama being laid bare, there was a lot of interesting insight into the world of Big Listers.  Big Listers are those that have seen thousands of the known species of birds in the world.  Known species is a moving target, and is currently around 10 thousand.  The biggest Big Lister has seen over 8 thousand.  This is about big numbers, big money, and big obsessions – and very little about the birds.  Koeppel, when he focuses on these people, does a better than credible job getting into their heads and their world and it was fascinating for me, in a rubber-necking kind of way.  The chance to see the birds these people have seen is tantalising; how they go about it, like a military invasion, isn’t.

And ultimately, this is why I’m not a twitcher, neither of the hobby sized or obsessive Big Lister variety.  True, I have the list of birds in my state, and I do check them off when I see them, noting the time and place.  But I don’t count, I don’t plan, set goals, or study, and I’m embarrassed at how few bird songs I can identify after the 10 years I’ve spent tramping around the bush – and at how easily I can confuse myself over identifications.

But I have no desire to ‘do better’  because my hazy goal, set when I started this and unchanged since, isn’t to just see the birds.  When I moved to Australia, not knowing how long I’d be here, I wanted to see Australia, I wanted to experience this place so far away from the rest of the world on so many levels.  Looking for birds (which are, let’s be honest, the low-hanging fruit of the wildlife tree), makes me look up, down, and into the bush; I have to actually explore my surroundings, and in doing that I come much closer to actually experiencing this amazing land.  The added bonus: not only have I seen (and am seeing) Australia in a way that will stay with me, but I have a new found sense of wonder wherever I go, including home to Florida.  I apparently lived 90% of my life alongside hundreds of bird species I never knew about because I never paid attention.  And by looking for the birds, I’m finding an entire world of wildlife right there for me to appreciate (or not, in the case of some).

So while I didn’t enjoy To See Every Bird on Earth as much as I’d hoped, I do thank its author for helping me clarify in my own mind my motivations for my avian hobby that definitely isn’t bird-watching.

Confessions of a Bookseller

Confessions of a BooksellerConfessions of a Bookseller
by Shaun Bythell
ISBN: 9781782835394
Published by Profile Books on August 29, 2019
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Personal Memoirs, Literary Collections, Letters
Pages: 381
Format: Hardcover
four-half-stars

"Do you have a list of your books, or do I just have to stare at them?"

Shaun Bythell is the owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland. With more than a mile of shelving, real log fires in the shop and the sea lapping nearby, the shop should be an idyll for bookworms.

Unfortunately, Shaun also has to contend with bizarre requests from people who don't understand what a shop is, home invasions during the Wigtown Book Festival and Granny, his neurotic Italian assistant who likes digging for river mud to make poultices.

 

The follow up to his Diary of a Bookseller, a book I enjoyed even more than I expected, so when I heard this was out, I immediately went out and bought it.

Every bit as good as the first, though where the first was primarily wacky and funny, this one had a sharper, more contemplative edge and, as far as my memory goes, this one feels a bit more personal.  The book he read/talked about made more of an impact with me in this book too, though I can’t say why.

A great read if you like books about books, or memoirs of misanthropic booksellers.

four-half-stars