Tuesday, January 20, 2015

january 2015 books

More book stuff:
Meetings With Remarkable Men (GI Gurdjieff): I first read this book in 1981 (although I have a feeling that I didn’t finish it). Gurdjieff was born near the Russian frontier with Persia in 1877. He trained as a priest and a phusician and then spent 20 years travelling in the remote regions of Central Asia (supporting himself throughout in a wide variety of trades), thinking, learning and absorbing ancient knowledge. This book is a strange mixture of traveller’s tales, myth, legend+autobiography and formed the basis of three books (this is the second) teaching his system of “knowledge”. He established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man near Paris in 1922. Despite the fact that I frequently found his observations were conveyed using something akin to Ronnie Corbett’s story-telling technique (ie. “Two Ronnies” sketches – with endless deviations and constant tangents!), I thought it was a fascinating book – if somewhat egotistical!
Fathomless Riches (Revd Richard Coles): I enjoy listening to Coles on Radio 4’s “Saturday Live” programme and Moira is a great twitter-follower of his(!). This is an unusual autobiography! Telling his story from his school days as head chorister, his time as a 1980’s rock star, his sexual awakening, drugs, broadcasting and, ultimately, being ordained in the Church of England. It’s a frank, honest and absorbing memoir – although I get a strange feeling (the book “ends” in 2005) that this is just the first in a series! In the book, I thought he came across as a rather vain individual who enjoyed being in the limelight and who seemed to pursue one fad after another (but perhaps I’m being a little unfair?). Not quite what you’d expect from a vicar perhaps(?)… although maybe he’s changed over the past 9 years or so.
A Journey (Tony Blair): I knew that, at some stage, I would read Blair’s 2010 autobiography (and couldn’t resist buying a new hardback copy for just £2!). I also knew that I’d be impressed (and even taken in by) his eloquence, ability to argue a case and his passion (in fact, I even scribbled a note to myself along these lines before I’d even started reading it, as a reminder… and also resolving that “it wouldn’t change my disdain that I now had for the man following the debacle of the Iraq bombing”!)(which I haven’t!). Well, I have now read the book (all 691 pages of it!). I have to say, I do just LOVE political biographies. It is an absolutely fascinating book – encompassing all my anticipated sentiments. As far as I can tell, it’s a very honest book – or is just me being taken in by the skill of successful politician? – and does provide a unique insight into the role and the required talents of a world leader. It was particularly absorbing reading his “take” on the Gordon Brown/Tony Blair Labour leadership battle (and “succession”). The book certainly took me back to that wonderful, joyous May morning in 1997 when Labour came into power after 13 years of Tory rule. There’s no doubt that Blair was (and still is?) a brilliantly talented politician and, with 7 years as a barrister behind him, was perfectly set for the role of Prime Minister. He clearly had/has an ability to think on his feet, absorb massive amounts of detail, to have “vision” and to articulate his thoughts supremely well. I think, in his early days as PM, he probably came across as a “man of the people” (and probably rightly so) but, over the course of his premiership, I think he became arrogant (yes, I know that all leaders probably need a little arrogance!) and even smug. For me, his style became too “presidential” and almost messianic in character… and his politics rather too “Tory” for my liking (or am I just being unfair?). I was also left with the overriding sense that anyone who has the ambition to be prime minister in this day and age of 24/7 media coverage, in a world of instant communication and, it seems, ever-increasing complexities… must be absolutely MAD! Whatever your politics, this is a totally absorbing, very well written and fascinating book.       
Brief Lives: EM Forster (Richard Canning): I came across this “short, authoritative” biography shortly after reading Forster’s “Where Angels Fear to Tread” – when I realised that I knew next to nothing about him (apart from some of his books). Strangely, Forster (1979-1970) had written his six novels by 1924 (drawing on a small body of experience, all over by his 30th birthday) and spent much of his later life writing literary reviews and short stories, travelling and broadcasting. He was homosexual – although only close friends were aware of this (he was desperately keen to keep this from his mother; his novel “Maurice”, a homosexual love story, was written in 1913-14, but not published until after his death) - and a humanist (President of Cambridge Humanists 1959-70). Canning’s short book providees an excellent summary of Forster’s life. My favourite quote from the book is an observation made in 1914, aged 35, when he lamented the intrusion of ‘the telephone and the bicycle, which have between them done so much to disintegrate family life’! As a fan of the TV programme “Only Connect”, I really should have been aware that its title was taken from the epigraph to Forster’s 1910 novel, “Howard’s End”! I probably now need to read “Passage To India”…
Blue Nights (Joan Didion): As you are probably already aware, Didion is a hugely-respected writer and journalist – famous in intellectual circles for her incisive commentaries on American politics and culture. Her husband John Gregory Dunne (novelist, screenwriter and literary critic) died in 2003 and she wrote an apparently brilliant book (“The Year of Magical Thinking” – something I’ve yet to read, but I will!) about their life together and her subsequent experiences of grief. “Blue Nights” begins on 26 July 2010 (the date of her adopted daughter’s seventh wedding anniversary). Her daughter died in March 2009, aged 39 and this book is about recollections of motherhood, parenting, pain and loss... and her own ageing process and frailty (she was 75 when she wrote “Blue Nights”). It’s a beautifully-written, controlled, raw, honest and haunting memoir.


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