How Hitler misled Chamberlain – and other lies with fatal results

Review: Vivien Horler

Talking to Strangers – What we should know about the people we don’t know, by Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane/ Penguin Books)

Malcolm Gladwell is a bestselling, interesting and insightful writer credited with developing the 10 000 hours theory of success: anyone can be an “overnight” winner when they’ve put in the hard work, usually around 10 000 hours of it.

Until Talking to Strangers, I’d read two of his books, The Tipping Point and Outliers, both of which I found fascinating. Actually Talking to Strangers is interesting too, full of striking anecdotes about how strangers tend to misunderstand each other, often with fatal consequences.

A story familiar to most of us is that of the meetings between Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler in Germany a year or so before the outbreak of World War 2. Hitler was being increasingly bellicose and, amid fears of war, Chamberlain went to see him to judge whether he was going to be satisfied with annexing Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, or whether he had wider territorial ambitions. Continue reading

Novel of courage to make a life in a narrow society

Review: Vivien Horler
A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier (The Borough Press/ Jonathan Ball)
The deaths of millions of young men in World War I meant a generation of young women was unable to marry and have children.
Society has changed so much since the early 1930s when this novel, by the author of the bestselling Girl with a Pear Earring, is set. We may think our world lacks kindness and tolerance today, but prejudice was rife in middle class England in 1932 and being a “spinster” was a challenge.
Violet Speedwell, born in the last years of the 19th century, loses both a brother and a fiance in the war. In her mid-30s at the start of this novel, she has moved away from her family home in Southampton, Continue reading

How to rebuild your life, one straw bale at a time

Review: Vivien Horler
A Way Home, by Jillian Sullivan (Potton & Burton)
In an odd little general dealer-cum-coffee shop in a village in New Zealand’s south island I spotted this book and thought it looked interesting.
Newly divorced and 50-something writer Jillian Sullivan decides to fulfil a dream to build a straw bale house. She doesn’t know much about building, but her son-in-law Sam does, and she signs on as his apprentice. “This is a beautifully told and inspiring story, a book for anyone who needs to start again, or has a project bigger than they think possible.”
I didn’t buy the book, but a couple of days later spotted it in the home of friends near Dunedin. In half an hour or so I’d read enough to know I wanted to read it all. It turns out the little general store in Oturehua in Central Otago was down the road from the house Sullivan built, and we happened to be passing back through in a couple of days. So I bought their only copy. Continue reading

Wanted: bodies for our current needs

Review: Vivien Horler
The Body – A guide for occupants, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday)
Sometimes it may be better not to dwell on the inner workings of our bodies.
I mean, do you really want to know this: “Every day, it has been estimated, between one and five of your cells turns cancerous …”
But Bill Bryson follows his statement with the good news: “… and your immune system captures and kills them. Think of that. A couple of dozen times a week … you get the most dreaded disease of our age, and each time your body saves you.”
As you might expect from the author of A Short History of Nearly Everything and At Home, this book is packed with facts, most of them interesting. There is, for example, the story of Vitamin D. It is vital to health, helping to build strong bones and teeth, boost the immune system, fight cancer and nourish the heart.
We get it two ways: through sunlight or our diet. But too much sunlight can cause skin cancer. Diet is also problematic: Bryson says to meet Vitamin D needs from food alone, we’d have to eat 15 eggs or about 3kg of cheese a day.
Skin colour helps with the safe absorbtion of sunlight, but the slow evolution of different skin tones only really worked when people stayed put. “Nowadays increased mobility means that lots of people end up in places where sun levels and skin tones don’t get along at all.”
All of this means that around 50% of people around the world are estimated to be Vitamin D deficient for at least part of the year, while in the northern hemisphere it might be up to 90%.
Bryson takes us through our bodies from the outside – skin and hair – to our microbes, the brain, the head, the heart and blood, our body chemistry, bones, walking upright and exercise, immunity, breathing, food and the gut, sleep, sex and procreation, disease and death.
Much of the information is based on trends in Europe and North America, presumably the people who will be buying the book. As a result he says of TB: “It is another disease that we have mostly forgotten…”, which is hardly true for us down at the southern tip of Africa.
But he reminds readers that in fact, with the conquest of smallpox, TB is now the deadliest disease on earth. Around one in three people on the planet carries the bacterium, and some boroughs of London have rates of infection “that nearly match” those of Nigeria or Brazil. And Bryson says with the increase of MDR and XDR strains, “it is entirely possible that we could one day … be facing an epidemic of TB that medicine cannot treat”.
Our bodies are miracles, but not without their problems. Bryson points out that we are the product of three billion years of evolution. “We would all be a lot better off if we could just start afresh and give ourselves bodies built for our … needs – to walk upright without wrecking our knees and backs, to swallow without the heightened risk of choking, to dispense babies as if from a vending machine. But we weren’t built for that.”
This is not one of Bryson’s funny books, and he does go in for quite a few meaningless comparisons, such as: if ocean viruses alone were laid end to end, they would stretch for 10million light years. Huh?
But it is written with his customary light touch and is full of interesting information that just calls out for a friend who will listen patiently as you read snippets out loud.

A memoir of children, lions and trauma

Review: Myrna Robins
Under the Camelthorn Tree – Raising a family among lions, by Kate Nicholls (Jonathan Ball)
Kate Nicholls says this is not an “and I was born” memoir, but rather a series of snapshots of events between 1994 and 2016. Her tale is not assigned to chronological chapters, but moves from Africa to the UK, jumping a decade or more and back again.
It all adds up to an extraordinary stretch of Nicholls’ life, a momentous 22 years during which she brings up her five children in a lion conservation camp in Botswana, is attacked by three men, descends into a mental hellhole fuelled by whisky, and pulls herself out of it slowly, healing helped by her work of home-schooling Russian children in London. Continue reading

Getting a good night’s sleep – or not

Review: Vivien Horler
Why We Sleep – the new science of sleep and dreams, by Matthew Walker (Penguin Books)
How do you know if you’re routinely getting enough sleep? There are two simple questions, says neuroscientist Matthew Walker: are you sleepy around 11am, and can you function before noon without a cup of coffee?
If you answer yes, and no, Walker says the chances are you’re not, along with most people in the Western world. Left to ourselves, without outside pressures such as starting school or work early, and staying up late for a myriad reasons, the average person would be awake for about 16 hours and sleep for eight in every 24-hour period. Continue reading

Combining crafting and cooking in appealing guise

Review: Myrna Robins
All Fired Up – Vegetarian recipes and reflections fron a country kitchen and pottery, by Nina Shand (Millstone Pottery, McGregor)
Open this intriguing softback and enter the mesmerising world of potters and their wood-fired pots and dishes. Add a garden of locally grown ingredients which, when cooked, will fill those pots with appetising feasts.
The relationship is timeless and as inspiring now as it has been for aeons. It is one that merges seamlessly in this collection of recipes both for fine fare and beautiful glazes, interspersed with tales of a potter’s day, from dawn until dusk – and sometimes on into the night. Continue reading

A race, a donkey with heart, and a lot of humour

Review: Vivien Horler

Running with Sherman, by Christopher McDougall (Profile Books/ Jonathan Ball)
This is a book about a donkey called Sherman. It’s also about burro racing – racing with donkeys; about the Pennsylvania Amish; treating depression; and how the relationship between people and animals keeps us human.
Because that’s the wonderful thing about Christopher McDougall’s writing: he has an ostensible topic, but then drifts into other areas, thinly related, in a generally fascinating way.
Readers of his bestseller Born to Run will know this. It was about ultramarathon running, a subject many of us have very little interest in. It sat on my bedside table for weeks. Then I picked it up and it was utterly brilliant. It was about a group of Mexican Indians who entered one of the toughest ultra marathons in the world, the Leadville 100, and wearing tyre-sandals, beat everyone else. Continue reading

The yachting dream that turned to nightmare

Review: Vivien Horler

Not Child’s Play, by Dave Muller (MF Books/ Jacana)


Seth Muller’s fifth birthday is a day his parents will never forget.

Living his dream, architect Dave Muller and a friend have spent 10 years building a yacht on which to sail around the world. In the Easter holidays of 1990, Dave, his wife Sandy, Seth and 8-year-old Tammy have sailed north from East London, planning to meet up with a friend on Seth’s birthday in the Bazaruto Islands of Mozambique.

It’s been a pretty good voyage so far, and with Arwen well out to sea, Dave settles down to sleep. He feels content – he’s finally achieved his dream of sailing to a tropical island.

He is woken by a thump, to realise Arwen has run aground on the beach. He starts the engine, but the yacht is heeled over at an angle of 45 degrees, and her prop spins uselessly in the air.

Continue reading

Jackie and Lee were synonymous with glamour, tragedy, and lots and lots of money

Review: Vivien Horler

The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters – the tragic and glamorous lives of Jackie and Lee, by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (Harper/ Jonathan Ball)

The reported crudity of the Donald Trump-led White House stands in stark contrast to the style in which Jack and Jackie Kennedy lived their White House years.

Elegance, beauty, appreciation of art and erudition were hallmarks of their lives (with a fair bit of bed-hopping thrown in).

Like Trump, both the Kennedy and Bouvier families were wealthy, although like Trump, Jack’s father Joe Kennedy sen was, according to the American writer Gore Vidal, “exuberantly and successfully a crook”.

Continue reading