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Memoir review – Trapped: my life with cerebral palsy by Fran Macilvy

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What a remarkable book this is. I am absolutely amazed. It is so different from what I expected. The writing is lyrical and beautiful, the descriptions of Fran Macilvey’s early life in Africa are captivating and magical and that is in spite of the tough subject she writes about.

Born with Cerebral Palsy due to a tragic mishap at birth, Fran Macilvey takes us through her upbringing, her youth and her young adult life with almost brutal honesty. For much of her childhood and teenage years, she suffered appalling physical mangling at the hands of doctors and consultants who thought they could make her ‘better’. But they couldn’t. Cerebral Palsy isn’t caused by orthopaedic problems; it is caused by lack of oxygen to the brain. I almost cried for her myself as she was passed from pillar to post, meanwhile feeling the stigma of being an ’embarrassment’ because she could not do what other children and young people do; and even worse, being treated as somehow mentally defective as well.

While this memoir may be about her life with Cerebral Palsy, it is just as much about the prejudice of society against people with disabilities and how they deal with them. Trapped is very much a self reflection and the ultimate hope it offers others in the same situation. Fran Macilvey has finally come to terms with who she is and what she has overcome and achieved, which, frankly, is a lot by anyone’s standards given the obstacles she had placed in her way. I was so delighted to read about her eventual love, marriage and child.

Nevertheless, the first part about her childhood in Africa stands out for me. It bears the hallmarks of someone who is capable of writing wonderful literary novels, and I sincerely hope Ms Macilvey will turn her considerable talents in this direction. Her prose is breathtaking and I would love to read more of this type of creative writing. Trapped is a wonderful book on many levels and I will look forward to reading more of Fran Macilvey’s work.

The link to Trapped: My life with Cerebral Palsy is here

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Memoir Review – Naked: Stripped by a Man and a Hurricane by Julie Freed

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I’ve just finished reading this memoir by Julie Freed. Before I start my review, though, I’d just like to say how much I like the cover. It seems wonderfully symbolic of the devastation that occurred in both her personal life and in the hurricane. I didn’t notice it when I bought it, but having now read the book, I appreciate the cover even more.

That aside, this is an extremely well written account of the double tragedy that struck Julie Freed. Just days before Katrina made landfall, her husband and father of her one-year-old daughter asked for a divorce, thus costing her a marriage. Then Katrina cost her the waterside  home she loved so much. It was completely and utterly destroyed and she, along with thousands of others were made homeless.

Much of the book covers the lead up to her divorce and it seems clear the marriage breakdown was foreseeable, but Katrina was not. I have to admit I was more interested in reading about the way Julie and her neighbours found strength and community in helping each other salvage what little was left of their lives after the storm (in her case, two small bins of belongings were the only items left from a complete home) than in the details of her divorce. I would have liked to learn more about the rebuilding and recovery of the area, about the efforts to clear the mess and debris, but I realise that the dissolution of her marriage was so interconnected with the storm, it could not be left out.

What was impressive was the way she managed to keep it all together with a baby, a dog and nothing but a car to call her own. (I was intrigued as to how she still had a car, but that’s a minor detail and maybe I overlooked it). Nevertheless, Julie admits she was one of the lucky ones. She had a loving family and good friends, all of whom were unstinting in their generosity and support. Her family were also able to offer her a home, which many others were not. As she points out, when families live close to each other, they all lose their homes in this kind of disaster. In the south, this is often the case.

The inspiring message about this book was that in the face of so much disaster, the love of family, friendship and community were the glue that kept her from falling apart or into depression and with their help, she was able to get on with rebuilding her home and her life. I am very glad for Julie that she has found happiness again and her story is a powerful one.

The link to the book is here

Memoir Review: Inside the Crocodile by Trish Nicholson

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This account of Dr Trish Nicholson’s five and a half years in Papua New Guinea in the late eighties and early nineties is absolutely fascinating. Using her extensive diaries as the basis of her narrative, she takes us from a chilly wind-blown Scotland to her arrival and consequent culture shock in tropical, humid Papua New Guinea. Nothing daunted, however, she uses her great people skills plus the help and friendship of fellow expats such as Jim, PNG colleagues like the marvellous Clarkson, Vero and Martha, and Frisbee the Hound Dog to find her way in the maze of PNG life and bureaucracy. Her job was to reorganise, restructure and give training to the Department of Personnel Management in Sandaun as part of a project financed by the World Bank. However, this was not a challenge for the faint hearted. So many personnel lived in remote areas, and the records were such a mess, it even involved paying staff who were already dead!

In her task, I was often amazed at her ability to survive the mind-numbing procedural complexities combined with the sometimes petty and anarchic disregard for truth and transparency of those entrenched in the system. Fighting ongoing Malaria, dramas such as pay-back killings, vengeful jealousies and corrupt practices, it took more than Trish’s strength to cope. Towards the end of her stay, she became dangerously ill with Malaria. Nevertheless, she builds wonderful friendships with her PNG colleagues and earns immense respect for her courage and pluck in tackling almost anything that comes her way. This includes a three day hike through dense and inhospitable bush that would have sent me scurrying for home about one hour into it, particularly the idea of crossing bridges made of rotting rope or vine over deep river gorges.

There are delightful side characters, such as Sebby, who gate-crashed seminars and scribbled on blackboards intended for training notes. Frisbee the fly-everywhere dog also adds a special canine touch to the story.

The book is quite long and very detailed, but this serves to underscore the chaotic situations Dr Nicholson, or rather ‘Tris’ had to unravel. I found it completely absorbing and was easily able to transport myself there into the time, period and place. I was also glad she provided a glossary of Pidgin terms at the end and enjoyed the photos that gave visual reality to some of the characters and situations. All in all, this is a wonderful journal, a great memoir and a riveting read.

The link to the book on Amazon is here

Memoir review: Facing Fear Head On: True stories from women on the water

 

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This book is the result of a competition in which all 46 authors of the stories involved took part. I was lucky enough to be one of the judges, but I only got to read the final selection, so I was curious to read the rest of the stories and decided to buy the book for myself.

All the entrants whose stories were selected had to describe a situation in which they faced their fear; all of them are women and all of them are sailors or boat dwellers: in other words, women on the water. This book is now the edited and polished version of all these stories and it is quite fascinating.

I am in awe of these women and how they face the challenges of life on dangerous oceans, dealing with raging storms and seas I can’t even bear to think of. I particularly loved Paralysed in the Pacific, Curiosity Killed the Fear and 10800 seconds. However, there are others too that I thoroughly enjoyed: How to Sink a Narrowboat and Overboard on Barge Life meant much to me being a barge person myself. I recognised the terror of being hung up in a lock, and all the fears that go with owning your own centenarian Dutch barge only too well.

That said, every single story had me riveted as there is an incredible compulsion in reading about other people’s terrifying experiences, isn’t there? The comforting part is that all these remarkable women survived to tell the tale and almost all of them have carried on sailing. Wonderful stuff! Highly recommended reading for all who love life on the water and for sailors in particular and hats off to the publishers, SisterShip Press, for their first publication. This is a great book!

The link to the Kindle version is here

Memoir: An Armful of Animals by Malcolm Welshman

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What a delightful memoir this is. Anyone who loves Gerald Durrell and James Herriott is bound to enjoy Malcolm Welshman’s collection of stories. I won the book in a draw and started reading it straight away. I absolutely loved the first two chapters, but then I am obsessed with anything to do with Africa. As Malcolm spent several years as a child in Nigeria, the very first pages had me riveted as they describe his early life there. From the parrot he acquired from a man in the market to his wonderful faithful dog Poucher, these ‘African’ chapters held me spellbound.

However, the rest of the book is also delightful even though it mostly takes place in England and covers the author’s veterinary adventures as well as his own encounters with wildlife and the pets he collects along the way. Written as a series of anecdotes, Malcolm Welshman writes with a great sense of humour, a refreshing honesty and a cheerful conversational style that make the book an easy and engrossing read. Africa is revisited on a few more occasions too, almost as if he knew this is what I would like. For those who know the artist David Shepherd’s work, there is a special treat as well. However, his love of all animals, and especially dogs, shines through the stories he relates. From badger watching as a teenager to operating on an Ostrich in Africa, each chapter is a complete and fascinating insight into animal life, behaviour, health and psychology, not to mention their owners! All in all, the whole book is a pleasure to read and I recommend it to all animal and wildlife lovers.

The link to the Kindle version on Amazon.com is here

To find Malcolm Welshman on Twitter, see here: https://twitter.com/malcolmwelshman

To find him on Facebook, see here: https://www.facebook.com/malcolm.welshman.7

Born for Life: Midwife in Africa by Julie Watson

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I received this book from the author, Julie Watson, as an Advanced Review Copy in return for an honest review. She sent it to me knowing of my love of Africa, so I will admit I was already re-disposed to enjoy it. However, I was more than just fascinated by this account of the author’s five months volunteering as a midwife at a remote mission hospital in Zambia.

What an amazing experience and what a marvellous thing she and her husband did by going to Kalene hospital in northern Zambia as self-funded volunteers. I have huge respect for people who make this kind of commitment. It must have taken immense courage to step out of their comfort zone and into a situation where they had none of the trappings of ‘normal’ life and then had to cope with so many life and death situations.

The book covers the lead-up to their departure and all the bureaucratic issues involved with gaining the necessary permits to work in Zambia in the medical field. Julie Watson tells the story in a matter of fact way without exaggeration or drama, but the reader can feel the frustration involved. Keeping patience when faced with African ‘time’ is something I could relate to easily.

Once the administration nightmares are over, the couple fly north to Kalene and I was immediately plunged into the world of hospital and volunteer life at the maternity department of this outlying mission hospital. With a team of dedicated doctors, midwifes, experienced native assistants and volunteers, the maternity ward deals with a constant stream of women and a daily battle with crises.

Women often arrive at the hospital ill and in danger and there are inevitable tragedies. Babies die with much more frequency than they do in a first world country where pregnant women receive such great care. However, apart from the places where I felt the author’s sorrow and pain over the deaths (which inevitably reminded her of her own loss), most would think she found it easy to adapt. But it must have been difficult, challenging and painful. Julie Watson’s writing style is quite formal, so it was only close to the end when I realised how much stress she’d been under throughout the whole five months. It’s just astonishing that she coped with it given all she had to face.

For anyone who has some medical knowledge and is interested in how women give birth and cope in rural Africa, it is a fascinating read and a testament to the courage of African women. There is quite a bit of medical terminology, which is explained in a glossary at the end of the book. There is also a lot of repetition, but that’s the nature of the job. However, there are some interesting glimpses of life in the surrounding villages and the couple’s social life as volunteers. That said, most of the book is focused on the women, babies and medical staff at the maternity ward.

After reading it, I am convinced this is a very important book as it records so much about what happens at a mission hospital and the conditions of pregnant women in Africa. I don’t personally know of another memoir that deals with this specific situation. Although it didn’t tell me as much about that part of Zambia as I’d hoped, it told me much more about the problems faced by the courageous, warm-hearted African women and the loving commitment of those who volunteer to help them. Hats off, Julie Watson. I wish you much success with this book and I am sure you will have it. It will be well deserved.

 

Born for Life: Midwife in Africa will be available to buy on 6 October, but you can pre-order it now here

 

At Home on the Kazakh Steppe by Janet Givens

What a terrific read this is! I was lucky enough to win it in a draw on the Facebook Group We Love memoirs and I’m sorry to say it sat on my Kindle for several months before I got round to reading it. Still, that’s what holidays are for, aren’t they? I caught up with a huge amount of reading while we were away this summer, and At Home on the Kazakh Steppe was one of the first books I read.

I was immediately immersed in Janet Givens’ account of how she came to be a Peace Corps volunteer, how she gave up everything (almost) she held dear to do so and how she then had to adjust to life in a Kazakh town where she was not infrequently accompanied to work by cows on the pavements.

What made this book so interesting was its exploration of cultural differences; how they can affect us, how we should start dealing with them and how to accept and embrace them. From early beginnings of anxiety, resistance and unhappiness, Janet and her husband grow into the country and its people as well as find themselves again. It is a fascinating, rich and absorbing book and highly recommended reading. I learnt so much about what the Peace Corps is about and I also learnt much about the people of Kazakhstan. Cultural differences aside, this is a story of people making connections, building bridges and understanding each other. Lovely!