A walk in the woods – Bill Bryson

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I put this book down more than three days ago, but in my mind I’m still wandering through the deep woods of America’s back country. I’ve never read a Bill Bryson book before, but I must say that A walk in the Woods was the ideal introduction to his work. His humour in this short travelogue is on form, as he details his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. It had me literally laughing out loud, sometimes in very public places.

Maybe what made me pick it up was the fact that I have always thought someday I would hike this trail myself. However, after vicariously experiencing it through Bryson’s account, I think I’ll give it a skip. Bryson goes into great detail about both the beauty, history and challenges of this trail (bearing in mind that it is over 3000 km and goes through  14 states, including Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee and New York).

It was a great read, light, funny and reflective on man’s relationship with nature. One of the most poignant themes that runs through this book, and one that Bryson continuously brings his reader back to is how humans have destroyed our planet. In that sense, the book is a tragi-comedy, but highly worth the read.

I paired this wine with the Sumaridge pinot noir, perfect for summer or winter (both seasons which Bryson experiences in the woods) and with flavours that I feel connate dark American forests: Black cherry, cedar wood smoke and wild herb.

 

A short history of tractors in Ukrainian – Marina Lewycka

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This book gets a lot of negative reviews online, so I’ll be honest and say that I approached it with low expectations, in fact, with the expectation of putting it down halfway through (mostly due to the claims of elderly abuse in the book-which I can’t abide at all). However, I made it through the story, and not only that, I enjoyed it.

I think the problem is that this book is sold as a comedy, with blurbs on the cover reading things like “hilarious” and “outrageously funny” which this book simply is not. What it is though, is a fascinating reflection on what it is to be a refugee or migrant, which these days, is a very relevant topic.

As a vessel for discussing this theme of movement and identity, the author uses the story of Nadia and her 80-something  father, who remarries a much younger woman clearly just after his money (of which there isn’t much). Through it, the conflict faced by Ukraine in the 20th century unfolds as Nadia seeks to save her father from the wicked woman he suddenly finds himself married to after his wife’s death.

At times it is amusing, though the author often writes “in accent” as if she was a Ukrainian speaker speaking English, which can be annoying. Otherwise, I found it a simple read, with interesting insights into the social issue of migrants and conflict.

I paired this with the Nitida Sauvignon Blanc reserve, a simple yet flavoursome white wine that is easy drinking for all occasions.

 

We are all completely beside ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

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Reading Karen Joy Fowlers We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was not what I had expected it to be. Having read the utterly straightforward and enchanting Sister Noon some months before, I expected something equally charming and simple, which this novel certainly is not.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers in the story, but it certainly provides insightful perspective on the level of cruelty humans are capable of. This was a hard story to read – not in the sense that I struggled to get through it or didn’t want to read it, but in the nature of its themes, which are quite weighty and at times depressing. Besides human cruelty towards animals, Fowler touches on the theme of family and self-identity. Some of the content she draws on is autobiographical in nature: her father, also a psychologist like the father in the novel, worked with animals in science labs when she was growing up. However, the amount of research that Fowler must have poured into this book to understand and write about experiments on chimpanzees in the early 20th century is impressive.

In summation, this is a hard read. The central character, Rosemary, is both relatable and completely foreign, as she takes us through the events she experiences on a California campus in the 90’s, and those that scarred her in her childhood. Fowler’s literary technique of swinging back and forth between middle, beginning and end of the story certainly adds weight to her primary focus on chimpanzees. If you enjoy her work, and you are prepared to have your thoughts challenged, I would suggest this one. If you’re looking for some light reading, maybe give it a skip or opt for Sister Noon instead.

I paired this book with the delectable Montpellier Chardonnay, made in the beautiful Tulbagh valley and which gives rewarding notes of pears and vanilla.

Little Liberia – Jonny Steinberg

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Since reading Jonny Steinberg’s outstanding work of non-fiction The Number, I decided that it was high time to tackle one of his more recent works, Little Liberia. What I appreciate about Steinberg’s writing style is that he completely immerses himself in his subject and is one of my role models as a journalist. I also appreciate the way his books are able to introduce me to worlds and people that I would never know or understand otherwise.

In this book, Steinberg spends two years speaking to, following around and getting to know two Liberians who fled that country’s civil war, only to find themselves in Staten Island, New York. The premise of this book is that the Liberian community which now lives in New York is frozen in time, stuck in the moment that they left Liberia, which includes all the factionalism and mistrust that caused the civil war in the first place.

The subjects of the story are Rufus Arkoi and Jacob Massaquoi, two Liberians separated both by age and clan. Rufus’ passion is football, which he uses both as a means to escape Liberia and to promote youth development in his country of exile. Meanwhile, Jacob stayed in Liberia for much of the war, only seeking to escape after many traumatic and devastating encounters, one of which leaves him with a tell-tale limp that marks him in his new life of exile.

The book is well written in Steinberg’s typical style, but I was somewhat disappointed that I didn’t learn as much about the Liberian civil war as I had hoped (and as I have done with similar books, like Jacques Pauw’s Rat Roads).  I did struggle to finish it, and at times I felt like there was too much going on: too many themes and tropes and characters to try and pull together. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this book to just anyone, but if you find African politics interesting, as well as the modern concept of exile, it may well be worth it for you.

It seemed appropriate to pair this story of two survivors with a blended wine, so I chose Slowine’s blend of Chenin Blanc, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc which has notes of tropical fruit, guava and gooseberry.