What I choose to read…

I’ve been away from this blog several months now. There was a time when I would review every book I read and post something new every day. I stopped because it felt like I’d run out of things to say and I wanted a little break which turned into a long one.

Anyway, I’m back because once again I have things I want to share and over the past week in particular, I found myself composing blog posts in my head. There’s been one thing on my mind a lot lately, and that is a significant change in my reading habits.

I say on the ‘about me’ page of this blog that

“I read a lot of books, mostly nonfiction…memoirs, biography, history, science, nature, travel and books about food. I don’t usually read fiction, but I will make an exception every now and then.”

That was very true when I wrote it three years ago. And it had been true for nearly twenty years at that point. But over the last three years I have found myself reading fiction more often than not.

It wasn’t a conscious decision to read more novels. It was something that just happened. I started this blog and then I was reading other book blogs and listening to book podcasts and picking up recommendations…

Reading and listening to other readers gush about certain books made me want to read them. And a lot of the books that I was hearing about were novels. The more I heard about these books and these writers, the more I realised how circumscribed my reading life has been.

I’ve always been quite open when it comes to non-fiction. I don’t stick to authors I know. I’m willing to pick up any book that sounds interesting and really, it is the subject that matters more than the author. As long as the writing is good and the subject is intriguing, I’ll read pretty much any writer.

But my fiction reading has been rather limited. In the sense that mystery novels meant Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, thrillers began with Alistair MacLean and then there was Arthur Hailey and Jeffery Archer. Science fiction was Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

Fantasy meant Tolkien and Pratchett until I finally picked up the Harry Potter books. Throw in Wodehouse and Jane Austen and I’m done. That has been the sum of my fiction reading in the past. And I never considered how limiting it was because I didn’t read a lot of fiction anyway.

So there I was hearing about all these books and so many authors that I’d never heard of, who apparently wrote some very good books and I realised that I was missing out. My ‘I don’t read a lot of fiction’ stance started to sound a bit stupid. I mean why ever not? Why do I not read fiction? I had no good reason to offer other than…habit, perhaps.

So I started picking up a few of these books. The first book that I picked up because I heard about it on the radio was The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. Then I read The Martian by Andy Weir. Then there was A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and Stardust by Neil Gaiman. All four utterly brilliant books that made me pick up others along the way and caused a fundamental shift in the books I choose to read.

I can no longer say that I read a lot of books, mostly nonfiction. I read a lot of books, period.

24 in 48 readathon 

23-24th July is the 24 in 48 readathon weekend. The idea being that we get in 24 hours of reading over one weekend. I read about this on litsy and I was instantly on board. I love the idea. Not just because it lets me read all weekend, but because signing up for the readathon means that I have to carve out chunks of time for reading…so I get three to four hours of continuous reading at a time instead of the bits and pieces kind of reading that is my normal.

There is nothing better than settling down with a book and reading it in one or maybe two sittings. I used to do that often enough as a kid and a teen (staying up until three or four in the morning to finish my book was completely normal.) But it isn’t something I get to do now. The last book I read in one sitting was Alan Bennet’s The Uncommon Reader. But that is a novella and it only has around eighty pages, so it doesn’t really count.

The last decent sized book I read in one sitting was Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About my Neck. That was eight years ago. I still remember that afternoon. I was at my parent’s house. My kids were still toddlers back then. We’d just had lunch and my kids were busy with my dad and I had nothing pressing to do, so I picked up this book, streched on the couch and started reading. I read and read with no awareness of anything but my book and four hours later, I literally woke from the book to find my kids napping and my mum making tea. It was a wonderful afternoon, a rare indulgence, particularly at a time when I was stressed out and desperately tired from trying to keep up with two very young kids.

Anyway, I am hoping to indulge properly this weekend. I don’t think I can manage 24 hours of reading in two days. Right now, I’m aiming for twelve. Anything more than that is a bonus. The best part about this weekend, though, is that I have managed to get my kids involved in the readathon. They are both confirmed readers who ask for books as birthday gifts. But reading for hours on end is rare for them because they have so many distractions and neither of them has ever read a book in one sitting. I’m hoping they’ll find out what that’s like this weekend.

As for what I will be reading, I have two books going at the moment (being in India, my readathon started eight and a half hours ago,) Now Read On by Bernard Levin and My Grape Year by Laura Bradbury. I have plenty to say about both of these authors, particularly Levin, so I’ll save that for when I post reviews of these books. Now Read On is a collection of essays, drawn from newspaper columns that Levin used to write for The Times (London) and The Guardian back in the eighties and nineties. This particular collection was published in 1990. My Grape Year is a memoir. I’m thoroughly enjoying my reading, so I will go back to my books. I will post an update on my readathon tonight.

Happy reading.

The weekend is over. My readathon is done and it went very well. My daughter and I got in 16 hours of reading and my son managed 15. It was intense and truly wonderful to push everything aside and just read for a whole weekend. It was a great experience for the kids and we’re all looking forward to the next readathon which happens in January.

Film Review : Spotlight

I don’t usually review films on this blog, but sometimes, I come across a movie that I can’t help talking about. Spotlight is one such. This is a movie that comes highly recommended and it lives up to all the praise. It is a thoroughly well-made film. It is a true story and the subject matter is something that we have all seen before, unfortunately. But what makes this movie special is the way the story has been told. It engages you from the very first frame and it keeps you hooked until it is over. And then…it makes you think.

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The movie is set in Boston and at the Boston Globe in particular. ‘Spotlight’ is the name of the team of investigative journalists working at the Globe. And the story under the lens here is that of a few catholic priests in the city of Boston who have been accused of molesting children. The film begins with the arrival of a new editor, Marty Baron, who is an outsider in many ways. He’s not from Boston and he’s a Jew. Not that a big deal is made of his Jewishness, but it is alluded to a couple of times.

Boston is a Catholic town and though incidents of molestation have been reported several times, the police have never filed cases against the offending priests and the victims have been too afraid to speak out. Even the newspapers have given the stories as well as the victims, very little attention. The new editor wants to change that. He believes that this is a story that needs to be told.

Considering how many of these incidents have been reported, he wants the Globe to do a proper story on it, complete with follow ups and details. Because it is clear that neither the accused priests not the Catholic Church will be tried in a court of law and stories like this will continue to be buried and children will continue to be at risk.

The Spotlight team is given this assignment and they find themselves wondering why they haven’t really pursued these stories so far. They just all got buried somehow.  As they start digging and finding out things, they are revolted, angered and looking for some semblance of justice. Soon they are all deeply invested and though they find themselves blocked again and again, they push on and in the end, they get the story with all of the sickening evidence. And they put it out there for the city to read.

This movie tackles a painful and uncomfortable subject, but it does it with grace and restraint. A story like this is always going to feel like a kick in the gut, but since the focus is on the journalistic aspect of it, it is a bit easier to handle. It makes you feel for the victims, but it does so with enviable gentleness and without ever getting preachy.  I’m not going to call it entertainment, but it is a story about people fighting for truth and justice and it is told in a riveting manner. It is a picture of what responsible journalism can be like and it is a must see for that reason alone.

Book Review : Paris Letters by Janice Macleod

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The blurb for this book is as follows:

“How much money does it take to quit your job?”

Exhausted and on the verge of burnout, Janice poses this question to herself as she doodles on a notepad at her desk. Surprisingly, the answer isn’t as daunting as she expected. With a little math and a lot of determination, Janice cuts back, saves up and buys herself two years of freedom in Europe.

A few days into her stop in Paris, Janice meets Christophe, the cute butcher down the street—who doesn’t speak English. Through a combination of sign language and franglais, they embark on a whirlwind Paris romance.

She soon realizes that she can’t ever return to the world of twelve-hour workdays and greasy corporate lingo. But her dwindling savings force her to find a way to fund her dreams again. So Janice turns to her three loves—words, art, and Christophe—to figure out a way to make her happily-ever-after in Paris last forever.

It sounds like a novel, doesn’t it? It’s a memoir and it could have been cheesy given the well worn, oft-repeated theme, but it isn’t. It is an honest, funny, self-deprecating account of the author’s attempts to turn her life around, to get out of the corporate rut and create a life that is happy and meaningful.

And the way she goes about it is so unusual. She writes letters to people, painted letters. Each letter is set in a particular spot in Paris. She paints the scene, leaving some room for text and writes about that place and that moment in time.

Then she makes copies of that letter and sells them on etsy.com. The letters are beautiful and she has subscribers who get twelve letters a year. Some of them write back and there is this wonderful correspondence in the book between Janice and her grandmother and this other lady, a Canadian called Mary.

The book is written well and it holds your interest all through. The reason for this, apart from the writing is the author herself. She’s funny and quirky and she’s engagingly honest. And Christophe, her husband by the end of the book, is very charming.

She writes lovingly about him and her account of their wordless romance (you can’t talk much when you don’t know each other’s language) is well worth reading about.

Book Review: My Grape Village by Laura Bradbury

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This is the second book by Laura Bradbury, also a memoir, also set in Burgundy. It is set around five years after the first book (My Grape Escape) which I reviewed in my previous post.

At the time the narrative begins, the author and her husband have been running a successful vacation rental business for the last five years and are now looking to buy another house to repair and restore.

They have been living in Canada all these years and have just made the decision to move to Burgundy for good. But it isn’t just them. They now have two daughters, both under five. It is a big move and it is tougher on all of them than they thought it would be.

Their kids have to adjust to a new school, a new culture and a foreign language while the parents negotiate the purchase of a house and once again set themselves an near impossible deadline by which it has to be ready to rent.

It is hard work, made harder by the fact that workmen aren’t readily available, they don’t have a much of a house to live in while they work and their kids seem to be unhappy at school for the first several months.

This is a memoir that is very much about the day to day joys and struggles of a young family trying to adjust to living in a foreign country. There is plenty of musing about what parenting means and how the French see it as opposed to the North Americans. There are the doubts and struggles that every new parent is familiar with….

It is a narrative that could easily descend into being mundane and repetitive. The fact that it doesn’t, is entirely due to the author’s skill with words, her ability to make you see and hear and feel. It is impossible not to care about this young couple and their kids as they make mistakes and learn and just try to keep going.

The writing is excellent and the pacing is smooth…right up until the end when it felt a bit rushed. I enjoyed this book, but I did feel that the last few chapters needed tighter editing. That small complaint aside, it is a delightful read.

Book Review: My Grape Escape by Laura Bradbury

This is a memoir that I read back in December. It was an Amazon recommendation. It sounded good and the reviews were all quite wonderful.

But I hesitated to buy it, because the book follows what is by now a thoroughly overworked theme…the story of someone who bought an old house in a French village and then went about restoring it while experiencing all the joys of rural France.

So I didn’t expect much from it and I was very pleasantly surprised.

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My Grape Escape is an account of the author’s journey from being all set to be a lawyer to giving all of that up to run a vacation rental in Burgundy, in a small village called Magny les Villiers along with her husband Frank who is a native of Burgundy.

The narrative begins with Laura and Frank going from Oxford, where she was studying law to stay with Frank’s family for a while. It is a vacation after all the gruelling law exams that Laura has just finished. Being in Burgundy is wonderfully restful and the author finds herself wondering if she really wants all the stress of the law career that she’s worked so hard for.

She realises that she doesn’t and that is as scary as it is freeing. She finds herself wondering what to do next when almost on impulse she and her husband decide to buy a small house in Burgundy, a vacation home for themselves which eventually turns into a vacation rental and a small business.

They find a house after quite a bit of trouble. They buy it and they get to work fixing it up. They advertise it as a vacation rental and suddenly they have bookings and a deadline they have to meet. It is, of course, a lot of work and they don’t have enough time or money and they have all sorts of troubles.

The author takes you through all their struggles, their doubts and their difficulties with such honesty that you can’t help but feel for this young couple and cheer them on through the tough times, the small victories and the invetivable setbacks.

There’s a whole bunch of interesting people who end up helping them, loads of wine and wonderful food and so many experiences that you can only have in France.

Now I’m an unabashed francophile and I would have enjoyed this anyway, but what made this book so special is the writing. This is Laura Bradbury’s first book, but you wouldn’t think it. The writing is fluid and the pace is just right. The descriptions are beautiful and you can almost see, hear and feel everything.

And the people in the book are so very real. The author is a Canadian and she is surrounded by French people who look at life very differently from her time and goal driven North American way of seeing things. They frustrate her no end, but sometimes they make her stop and think that maybe she doesn’t have to worry so much. Maybe it is okay to believe that things will work out…

It is a thoroughly delightful book and the first thing I did when I finished reading it was to go buy the sequel.

Book Review : The Sharper Your Kinfe the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn

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The full title of this book is: The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry – Love, Laughter and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School. The cooking school in question is, of course, Le Cordon Bleu.

This is a memoir written by a journalist, Kathleen Flinn. It is an account of the time she spent at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, learning to cook.

It was a long held dream and one that she had set aside for years in favour of getting on with life and her career. She had settled into a job that she wasn’t all that passionate about and she stayed… until the day she lost her job.

Instead of looking for another job, she decided to take advantage of her unemployment to follow her dream. She enrolled herself at Le Cordon Bleu, packed her bags and moved to Paris.

This is a record of her time in Paris where she was joined by her (then) boyfriend, Mike Klosar, her experiences at the school, the whole business of learning to cook, dealing with the pressure of the kind of precision that French cooking demands and so on.

Through the course of this book Katheen and Mike got engaged and married. She also met some fascinating people and made a few very good friends.

It is clear that she had an interesting time in Paris and she writes about it all rather well. This is a food memoir, but it is about a lot of things besides food, so there is something for everyone here.

The book comes with a recipe at the end of each chapter. This is a trend in food writing that I don’t particularly care for. I think recipes should be left to cook books, but perhaps there are other readers who will disagree with me.

I like memoirs and this book was no exception. But I did have one complaint. Everyone in the book is is painted vividly, particularly Mike. But Kathleen herself remains a shadow.

She is always the observer. Even when she is taking about times when she is excited or upset about something, the narrative is detached, like she’s observing herself from the outside.

I enjoyed the book, but I wish there had been more of the author in it.

Book review : How Reading Changed my Life by Anna Quindlen

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Reading has defined me all my life. So when I come across a book titled How Reading Changed my Life, I know that I will probably like it. After all there is little that is more interesting to me than talking about books.

This is a charming book. It is small in that it is a mere 96 pages long, but the author manages to use that space discuss a wide variety of topics.  It is divided into five chapters over which Anna Quindlen explores everything from childhood reading to a brief history of printing to worries that the internet will put an end to physical books to literary snobbery, reading habits  and reading lists

She begins by talking about her childhood, hours and days spent in a cozy chair as she devoured book after book while other kids ran around and played outside. She says,

“The best part of me was always at home, within some book that had been laid flat on the table to mark my place, its imaginary people waiting for me to return and bring them to life. That was where the real people were, the trees that moved in the wind, the still, dark waters.”

“There was waking, and there was sleeping. And then there were books, a kind of parallel universe in which anything might happen and frequently did, a universe in which I might be a newcomer but was never really a stranger.”

I felt an instant kinship with her at this point, because this is the way my childhood went as well.

Her parents weren’t avid readers, so she didn’t have many books at home. She describes vividly how it felt the first time she walked into a house that was filled with books. She talks at some length about  all the books she has loved over the years. While I have read and loved very few of the books that she mentions, that it no way diminished my interest in her discussion of them.

Why would you read the same book again?

I often hear people saying that they don’t re-read books, either because they don’t see the point or because they don’t want to waste time on a book that they’ve read already when there are so many other books to read.

Like any serious reader, I too wonder how I am ever going to find the time to read all the books I want to read. I know that I could read so much more if I didn’t keep going back to the books I love. But then I like going back to them.

I fall in love with a book every once in a while and it feels like such a tragedy when the book ends. I can’t bear the idea of putting it aside and never looking at it again. I have to read it and relive it a few times before I feel like I have experienced it properly.

I have been re-reading books ever since I was a kid. Whether it was Little Women , Anne of Green Gables, King Solomon’s Mines or Around the World in Eighty Days…Each of these books was a world that I enjoyed tramping about in and I was always game for a return trip.

The list of books on my ‘to be re-read’ list has morphed and changed over the years but the list itself is a constant. At the moment, it includes books like Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey series and several of his other books, Aldous Huxley’s Island, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, David Grayson’s Adventures in Contentment and so on…

And then there are writers like James Herriot, P G Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett, Agatha Christie and Helene Hanff, all of whose books I will happily read again and again.

I go into a familiar book knowing exactly what happens and that is the very thing that makes it so much fun the second time around. I enjoy the book more because I don’t have to worry about what happens next. I can focus on the characters and the dialogue and enjoy the words and the world that they help create.

Perhaps I should admit here that people and characters matter more to me than plot and action. Maybe that is why I like memoirs so much. And my favourite kind of novel is one that has characters with depth and substance, characters that I can truly care about.

While I loved a lot of the books that I read as a child, the first character that I fell in love with is Elizabeth Bennett with Mr Darcy being a close second. I must have been around fifteen years old when my great-grandmother gave me her copy of Pride and Prejudice and told me that it was her favourite book.

It didn’t take me long to understand why. I have read it many times since and yet each time I am caught by the characters and their world and I read feverishly until I stop myself and try to go slow in an effort to make the book last a little bit longer.

The next book that I fell that crazy in love with was 84 Charing Cross Road.. The author, Helene Hanff used to re-read books all the time. She says in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, another beloved book, that,

“While other people are reading fifty books, I’m reading one book fifty times. I only stop when at the bottom of page 20, say, I realize I can recite pages 21 and 22 from memory. Then I put the book away for a few years.”

I’ve had to put 84 Charing Cross Road away for that very reason. But I enjoyed living in that book. It was my first encounter with someone outside my family who was as crazy about books as we were.

Reading a book is more than just entertainment or a way to pass the time. It is an experience and some books are so good that I have to go into them again and again just to live in that world for a bit.

But it is true that all books are not as good the second time, even the well-loved ones. Some books hold a magic for us because of a particular time or place in our lives when we read them, a magic that cannot be recreated a second time.

I think this is particularly true of the books we read as children. I discovered this recently, when I tried to read King Solomon’s Mines. I have such fond memories of this book and I was sure I would enjoy reading it again…I didn’t. I couldn’t even finish the book. And it made me feel awful, like I’d gone and messed up a wonderful memory.

And then there are books that suffer from over-exposure like The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. I love these books and I have read them both a couple of times.

But I’ve seen the movies so many times, thanks to my kids who were obsessed with both of these series and would watch nothing else for months on end that it is going to be several years before I can go back to them and find them fresh again. But I know I will go back to them someday and that I will enjoy them thoroughly.

If I love a book, I will read it again. I have to read it again. Not doing so is like throwing away a treasure after holding it just once. Or to quote Anne Fadiman who put together a whole book called Re-readings,

“…the reader who plucks a book from her shelf only once is as deprived as the listener who, after attending a single performance of a Beethoven symphony, never hears it again.”

Book Review : Cooked by Michael Pollan

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This is a book that is hard to describe. It is a bit genre defying or genre busting as one critic called it. It is obviously a book about food and cooking, but it is a lot more than that.

Pollan begins the book by saying that he has spent years writing about the industrial food system, nutrition and health. He’s explored the production end of it and the consumer end of it but he has somehow never focused on the the process in the middle: cooking.

That is what he tries to do in this book. He explores the different processes of cooking by apprenticing himself to experts…barbecue pit masters, chefs, bakers, cheese mongers, brewers and fermentos.

So the book is a memoir of sorts, a record of his experiences in the process of learning to cook. It is clear that he’s had a lot of fun and that he’s worked hard and learned a lot of new skills. That in itself would have made interesting reading.

But the book is more than a memoir. There is the history of barbecue, the science of sourdough bread, the mechanics of sauerkraut and the social and political implications of handing over the business of cooking to corporations.

Through the book he stresses the importance of cooking for yourself. “Cooking is a political act,” he says. By buying fresh, local ingredients and cooking for yourself you are choosing against food companies and industrial farms.

These are themes that he has explored before, but he weaves these ideas rather deftly into his exploration of cooking and makes the discussion more nuanced than it would otherwise have been.

The book begins with a trip to Aiden, North Carolina to sample authentic whole hog barbecue. Then Pollan chronicles his experience learning to cook with barbecue pit master Ed Mitchell.

The next section is about cooking with water, in covered pots the way women have done for centuries. Here Pollan apprentices himself to a chef, Samin Nosrat, a woman who was once his student.

Then comes baking and learning to bake bread. For this he goes to Chad Robertson of Tartine bakery. He learns to bake bread but is then forced to face the fact that his beautiful loaf of white bread is nutritionally empty. This leads to the exploration of whole grain flour and the challenge of baking with it.

Then there are all the intricacies of fermentation from yoghurt to sauerkraut to beer to kimchi to cheese. And the whole science of gut bacteria.

The book has a very broad range and it is fascinating. It is well researched and extremely well written. And despite the history and science and philosophy of the different kinds of food and cooking that Pollan includes here, he manages to keep it interesting.

This is not easy reading by any means. It is information heavy and I found it easier to read in bits and pieces than straight through.

Cooked is a good book. It is an important book and one that will make you think whether you are interested in food or not.

Still Foolin ‘Em by Billy Crystal

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This book is funny, but it also surprisingly thoughtful. This is Billy Crsytal telling you about his life, his childhood spent playing baseball and hobnobbing with some of the best jazz musicians of the day (his father was the manager of a popular record store in New York city and he also managed the first independent jazz label of its time), losing his father when he was just fifteen years old and having to grow up before he was quite ready, going off to college, meeting his future wife and marrying her when he was just twenty-three, having kids, trying to make a career as a stand up comic, his foray into TV and films, acting, directing, hosting the Oscars (he’s hosted it a record nine times), watching his daughters grow up, becoming a grand parent…all this interspersed with little insights and anecdotes about what it is like to be old.

It is Billy Crystal reflecting on his life. He is warm and funny, witty and insightful, even poignant at times. And he has clearly lived a life full of interesting people and rich with experiences of all kinds. And he writes about it with an engaging honesty that has you laughing and even crying with him a couple of times.

The book does drag in a few places and there are at least two chapters that I thought the book could have done without, but these are minor criticisms.

The book is definitely worth reading and as one reviewer on goodreads put it, if you like Billy Crystal, you will like this book.

 

Provence 1970 by Luke Barr

Provence 1970 is a book about good food and the experience of cooking and eating well. But it also a book about living well. Each of the people in the book, MFK Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard and Richard Olney, went to France and discovered good food or rather they discovered how good food could be if it is prepared with care and attention.

Cooking that way and teaching others to cook that way became the work of their lives. And they kept going back to France or in Olney’s case, living there.

All of them had homes or people to visit in Provence, which to the lot of them was the best place in the world to live. While they did a lot of talking about food, what appealed to them so much about France and Provence in particular, was the way of life, the relaxed pace, the simple, uncluttered lifestyle and the fact that people make time to enjoy the good things in life.

What they began to realise in 1970 was that a love of good food, the ability and desire to enjoy life and to live well…these are things that you can have anywhere, not just in France. And French cuisine, magnificent though it is, is not the only great cuisine and when you do cook French food you don’t have to do it only one way. You can improvise, try something different, make it your own. The whole point of cooking good food or living a good life is to have fun and enjoy it and not worry so much about doing things perfectly or in just the right way…

This book is a record of a series of meetings and meals that all of these people shared  in the December of 1970 when by some coincidence and a little bit of planning they all happened to be in Provence at the same time. It is a record of their conversations, their thoughts and the experiences of those few days which led them all in one way or the other to question the established way of doing things.

The book is very engaging and it quickly draws you into its world. Luke Barr has done a wonderful job of recreating the time and the place and he writes about each of these people with such warmth and sensitivity that you end up caring very much about them by the end of the book. It is a book that will stay with me for a long time.