Saturday, November 14, 2020

october-november 2020 books…

Hot Water (PG Wodehouse): Another ‘escapist’ read in these strange times! Published in 1932, the plot is utterly preposterous (and ridiculously complicated) but, coming from Wodehouse, is also hugely entertaining. The plot involves a house party in a rented Brittany ch√Ęteau with an odd array of American guests… and where the rich hostess is intent on trying to persuade an American Senator to recommend her (distinctly reluctant) husband for the position of American Ambassador to France. Other guests include “Soup” Slattery (a safe-blower) and “Oily” Carlisle (a confidence trickster). Needless to say, not everything goes to plan… Despite my reservations about the bizarre storyline, Wodehouse’s brilliant dialogue and descriptions are simply wonderful and hugely entertaining.
Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury): This is our next StorySmith bookgroup’s book (Science Fiction theme) and, for me, a long-overdue chance to read my first Bradbury book. First published in 1954, and set perhaps in the 1990s (there’s a reference to V-2 rocket films of “fifty years ago”), it’s a terrifying prophetic novel of a post-literate future. The main character, Guy Montag, is a fireman who burns books in a futuristic American city (Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns). In Montag’s world, firemen start fires rather than putting them out. The people in this society do not read books, enjoy nature, spend time by themselves, think independently, or have meaningful conversations. Instead, they drive very fast, watch excessive amounts of television on wall-size sets, and listen to the radio on ‘Seashell Radio’ sets attached to their ears. I found it utterly compelling… something of cross between “Animal Farm”, “1984”, “The Handmaid’s Tale” and even our daughter Alice’s book “Ink”. Scarily sobering in its anticipation/prediction of TV walls and the ability to communicate via ear pieces, its two major themes are resistance to conformity and control of individuals via technology and mass media. Hugely thought-provoking… and quite, quite brilliant. Why on earth hadn’t I read this wonderful book before now?
A Good Enough Mother (Bev Thomas): The novel’s central character is the director of a highly respected trauma unit… she’s confident, capable and very good at her job but, as a mother of twins (in their late teenage years), there have been times when she’d struggled, was over-anxious and even overbearing. Her marriage had broken up; her son had mysteriously disappeared (and was perhaps dead?); her relationship with her daughter wasn’t brilliant (and she was on a gap-year in Australia)… It’s an intelligent story on the dilemmas of the therapist-client relationship and good parenting (the author was a clinical psychologist in the NHS for many years). At times, I found it extremely unsettling; at times, it felt like reading a tense thriller (a real page-turner). I don’t want to give away the plot, so I’ll stop here (but I do admit to enjoying the various references to ‘Into The Wild’ book/film!). I struggled somewhat at the start of the novel, but gradually ‘got into it’… and ended up REALLY enjoying the book. A gripping story.
Fifty Fifty (Steve Cavanagh): I bought this book after seeing it reviewed on TV’s ‘Between the Covers’. Irish-born Cavanagh used to be a lawyer (he now says he studied law “by mistake”!); he’s now the international award-winning author of a number of ‘Eddie Flynn’ novels (Flynn is an American con-artist who became a lawyer). It’s the story of two sisters who are on trial for the murder of their father. Both accuse each other. Who is innocent? Who is guilty? Well, I REALLY enjoyed this book (I absolutely ‘consumed’ it in one and a half days); it’s a real page-turner of a thriller… very well written, well-researched, intelligent and clever. I’ll say no more, except that it was the perfect escapist novel in these strange and difficult times… and that I clearly need to read more Eddie Flynn novels (I think there are another five)!
A Walk In The Woods (Bill Bryson): I just love Bryson’s books… and, at a time when we all need a bit of ‘feel good re-assurance’, this didn’t disappoint (understatement). Unsurprisingly, I really REALLY enjoyed it… it made me laugh out loud SEVERAL times! Published in 1997, it’s the tale of his adventures, aged 44 (as he then was), in tackling the world’s longest continuous footpath, the Appalachian Trail – from Georgia to Maine on the USA’s east coast… tottering under his 40lb plus backpack. The entire trail is some 2,200 miles (ok, he doesn’t walk its entire length… but hey!) of remote mountain wilderness (filled with bears, rattlesnakes, poisonous plants, disease-bearing ticks and the occasional murder – not to mention the severe weather). At first, I was disappointed when I learnt that he was undertaking the walk with an old friend, Katz, who had apparently put on ‘some’ extra pounds since their somewhat fraught travels around Europe 25 years earlier, when they’d ended up “despising each other” – as Bryson’s wife put it! I really didn’t want someone else disrupting Bryson’s ‘lyrical flow’… but, actually, their hilarious exchanges proved fundamental to the book’s enjoyment. Bryson saw it all as a supreme adventure; Katz was far more focussed on surviving their various camp experiences and getting to a motel to watch ‘The X-Files’! Katz always lagged well behind on their walks… he was guilty of throwing out, clothes, equipment and food (not to mention his spare water bottle) in an effort to make his backpack lighter. Together (in the words of the blurb on the book’s cover), they “gamely struggled through the wilds to achieve a lifetime’s ambition – not to die outdoors”. Quite brilliant. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

september-october 2020 books…

The Wild Silence (Raynor Winn):
I read (and hugely enjoyed) Winn’s debut book ‘The Salt Path’… about her walking several hundred miles round England’s South West Coast Path with her husband, Moth - sleeping wild and virtually penniless after their home was lost to bailiffs (and, even worse, her husband had been diagnosed with corticobasal degeneration, an incurable brain disease). ‘The Wild Silence’ tells the story of how, despite never having written anything previously, she had decided to write the first book as a gift for Moth, a record of their (and particularly his) endurance and, following encouragement from their daughter, an enthusiastic publisher was found. ‘The Salt Path’ ended up catching the eye of Sam - a City trader with a dilapidated, neglected farm beside a creek in Cornwall - and he offered Winn and Moth a free tenancy in return for reviving the wildlife on the farm. Their relocation here, once again in search of natural healing and ‘proper’ home, is the premise of ‘The Wild Silence’.
At the start of the book, they were living in a small rented converted chapel and, without any physical connection to the land, Moth’s health was deteriorating quickly. Moving to the farm was a huge risk and involved massive amounts of work… but, between them, they rediscover a connection with nature. On the strength of the first book’s success, they decide to undertake another walk – this time to Iceland (something that seemed ridiculously onerous as far as Moth’s health was concerned). I have to say I found this section of the book something of distraction and longed for them to return to ‘life on farm’, but hey ho! Having said that, I did really enjoy the book – Winn is a very talented writer – and I found it wonderfully hopeful and encouraging… and also frequently quite moving.  
Summerwater (Sarah Moss): I think this is the fifth Sarah Moss novel I’ve read. The setting is a group of wooden holiday cabins located beside a Scottish loch. The ‘action’ all takes place on a single day… each chapter focuses on one of the individuals occupying one of the cabins. There are no phone signals and, of course, it’s pouring with rain. Everyone is hiding something, it seems… and they each have opinions (accurate or wildly inaccurate) on their fellow holiday-makers. It’s a tense, unsettling novel (I’ve even read a review that described it as “somewhat pandemic”)… and the first chapter essentially infers that it’s not going to end well… which only adds to the tension. It’s beautifully observed and full of political and climate change references. In some ways, it reminded me of Max Porter’s “Lammy” (one of my favourite books). Very impressive.    
Wise Children (Angela Carter): This is our next StorySmith bookgroup book. I’ve watched Emma Rice’s brilliant stage adaptation twice, but never read Carter’s 1991 book – until now. The novel follows the fortunes of twin chorus girls, Dora and Nora Chance and their bizarre theatrical family. Dora is the book’s narrator and she recounts her family history – a mix of ambition, greed and revenge; fathers and daughters; brothers and sisters; twins, mistaken identity, incest and adultery; family and forgiveness; love and loss; failure and success… but, essentially, about life and living. It’s wise, bawdy, vulgar, eloquent, life-affirming, very, very funny… and wonderfully written. It’s not a long book (230 pages or so) but, for some reason, it took me longer to read than I would have anticipated – perhaps this had something to do with trying to keep abreast of the wide array of characters and their complex, interconnected lives. Carter died at the tragically young age of 51 (she wrote the play after she knew she’d been diagnosed with lung cancer). Our bookgroup’s selection theme for this month was to come up with a book that would essentially make us smile (and take our minds off Covid-19, Brexit et al). Well, it certainly did that… quite a brilliant book.
The P-P-Penguin (Patrick Campbell): I first read this book nearly 50 years ago. My dog-eared copy was already second-hand when I bought it (first published in 1965) and I knew before I started re-reading it that it would something of a challenge to do so before it actually fell apart… but I persisted! If you’re old enough(!), you might recall that Campbell was a panellist on TV’s “Call My Bluff” show… and very funny he was on it too. This book is a collection of various newspaper articles/anecdotes he’d written over the years and I was surprised to discover that time seemed to have made them less amusing than I had remembered them (but tastes and fashions obviously change). While some of the collection DID make me laugh out loud, some just seemed rather dated and somewhat obscure. Having recently read books by both Alan Coren and Campbell, I think that, for me, Coren wins ‘hands down’.
Under The Frog (Tibor Fischer): This is my Bloke’s Books bookgroup’s latest book. The novel follows the adventures of two young Hungarian basketball players through the turbulent years between the end of WW2 and the revolution of 1956 (and influenced, no doubt, by the author’s parents’ accounts of their own experiences). The book’s cover includes the following description: “In this spirited indictment of totalitarianism, the two improbable heroes, Pataki and Gyuri, travel the length and breadth of Hungary in an epic quest for food, lodging, and female companionship”.  It parodies the trumpeting of the ‘gains of socialism’ by the regime, which the author seems to suggest as being empty rhetoric – that all but the dimmest were able to see through even from the beginning. It was shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize, so I knew it was likely to be an impressive book… and yet, although impressively-written and full of bizarre humour (and poignancy), I was actually rather disappointed by it. I found the first 100 pages utterly tedious (yes, that’s probably just me!) and, although I ‘got into’ the book about half-way through (and found the final chapters quite impressive and powerful), I was somewhat relieved when I’d finished the book. It took me a full fortnight to read (very unusual for me). According to Wikipedia, ‘Under the Frog’ is taken from a Hungarian expression used to describe any situation when things can't seem to get any worse: "under a frog's arse, down a coalmine"… which doesn’t QUITE sum up my thoughts about the book, but I don’t think I’ll be re-reading it any time soon.

Friday, September 18, 2020

six months in and still counting…

It’s exactly six calendar since Moira and I self-isolated/shielded (I’m one of those people classified as “clinically extremely vulnerable”!). We’ve taken the coronavirus precautions very seriously and decided from the outset that we would avoid shopping, public transport and, to a large extent, people! We decided to try to walk every day (for both our physical fitness and our mental health – but, still, as far as possible, avoiding people). Even after the shielding rules were relaxed at the start of August, we’ve effectively kept to the same disciplines.
The past six months have been a strange and challenging time for all of us… and, of course, thousands have died or have been massively affected by the virus. In such circumstances, Moira and I regard ourselves as being incredibly fortunate. Schools, shops, restaurants, theatres, sport and jobs have all been hugely disrupted. Yes, it’s been frustrating not to be able to hug our children and grandchildren or to meet freely with our friends… and, yes, for us, it’s also meant being restricted to venturing out only within walking distance from our front door. 
But we’ve all also learnt to adapt. Where it’s been possible, people have worked from home; technology (eg. zoom) has been crucial; people have discovered different ways of doing things…
Who would want to be a government in such difficult circumstances?
Whatever one’s political views, I think there’s common agreement that the UK government performance through it all has been abject. It has been guilty of a whole string of fundamental errors and poor decision-making – all with massively serious repercussions. For example: on 24 January, Health Secretary Mr Hancock dismissed the coronavirus threat to the UK public as ‘low’; PM Mr Johnson missed five vital Cobra meetings (it wasn’t until 2 March that he attended his first virus meeting)… and by then it was almost certainly too late. The Times published an article on 18 April lambasting the government (and in particular Mr Johnson) for its/his failures and what it described as the “five lost weeks”… and the “thousands of unnecessary deaths”, in its estimation, this had caused. Mr Johnson’s spokesman played down the looming threat from the east and reassured the nation that we were “well prepared for any new diseases”. 
Contrary to the official line, scientists, academics, doctors, emergency planners and public officials acknowledged that Britain was in a poor state of readiness for a pandemic. Emergency stockpiles of PPE had severely dwindled and gone out of date after becoming a low priority in the years of austerity cuts. The training to prepare key workers for a pandemic had been put on hold for two years while contingency planning was diverted to deal with a possible no-deal Brexit.
At the beginning of April (I can’t be absolutely sure of the date), I recall watching an interview with a scientist from South Korea (the country had been hit by the virus some weeks earlier and had been relatively successful in containing its spread). She had been asked what advice she would give to European countries now faced with having to deal with the virus. Her reply was unequivocal and brief: effective testing and tracing was absolutely CRUCIAL.
Oh the irony!
So, here in the UK, six months on from when the country first went into ‘lockdown’ in mid-March, we are STILL struggling to provide an effective and reliable ‘test and trace’ system (despite the initial ridiculous claims about the UK having a world-beating system!). Even at airports (most airports around the world had introduced temperature tests for arrivals), the UK lacked action and authority… not to mention an effective policy. A study by Southampton University, for instance, showed that 190,000 people flew into the UK from Wuhan and other high-risk Chinese cities between January and March. The researchers estimated that up to 1,900 of these passengers would have been infected with the coronavirus — almost guaranteeing the UK would become a centre of the subsequent pandemic.
Six months on from the initial ‘lockdown’ in March, it seems as though the government has lurched from one crisis to another… mixed message after mixed message; lack of leadership; lies; Dominic Cummings; lack of trust; Care Home testing fiasco; handing out £1billion government contracts (to ‘friends’?) without tender; abolishing Public Health England;
… and, of course, not forgetting Climate Change; Brexit; proroguing parliament; introducing a Bill that would break international law; the Good Friday Agreement; Russian interference in the election; Grenfell Tower inquiry; refugees etc etc.
Back in April, I wrote this on my blog:
I desperately hope that we come out of it all determined to make the world a better place.
I desperately hope that we remember the people and the jobs that make our day-to-day lives worth living.
I desperately hope that we truly decide to care for our planet.
I desperately hope that we can move away from the old world of greed and power, of the haves and the have-nots. My fear is that some will have very short memories and revert back (if ever they budged) to lives governed by wealth and influence.
I desperately hope that such individuals and corporations are overwhelmed by the voices of those who know there’s a better way.
Sadly, it’s still not over…
The trouble is that none of us has been through this before. When we first went into ‘lockdown’, the government advised ‘extremely vulnerable’ people like me that we would need to self-isolate for 12 weeks (ie. until mid-June). In the event, this was subsequently extended by a further 7 weeks to the beginning of August. Although the number of weekly deaths in the UK currently seems to have ‘levelled out’ at between 50-100 (large numbers, but nothing compared with the April figures of 4,000-5,000/week), the number of confirmed cases has recently started to increase again – to over 4,000/week. The total ‘official’ number of UK coronavirus deaths is currently shown as approaching 42,000 (although UK statistics agencies claim it’s nearly 58,000).
So we continue to live with huge uncertainties… the worry, with Winter approaching, is that there will be a ‘second wave’ – which, given the more severe weather, would likely result in many more deaths. Sadly, a Winter ‘lockdown’ would almost certainly also have a severe effect on mental health issues.
The UK economy, inevitably, would continue to struggle in such circumstances (the government has already come under criticism of encouraging people back to work – with a resulting boast to the economy – despite the distinct likelihood of a subsequent increase in coronavirus cases).
So, to all intents and purposes, we all have to live from week to week… which obviously makes ‘planning’ uncertain and fraught with difficulties. Again, from my April blog post, I wrote:
We’ve learnt so much from this awful coronavirus experience.
Let’s use what we’ve learnt to make the world a better place.
I sincerely hope that this will be the case but, as things stand, I sense that many people are just desperate to ‘get back to normal’ and, indeed, that some have not only abandoned any aspirations that might have had to ‘make the world a better place’, and are prepared to ignore guidelines and rules in pursuit of their own selfish desires.
I very much hope that I’m wrong.
I watched David Attenborough’s “Extinction: The Facts” a couple of days ago on iPlayer and it underlined, for me, that so many of the issues facing the world today – like Climate Change and Pandemics – are interconnected. Our individual lifestyles; what we eat; our carbon footprints etc etc (eg. a UN report identified the key drivers of biodiversity loss, including overfishing, climate change and pollution. But the single biggest driver of biodiversity loss is the destruction of natural habitats).
Disease ecologists believe that if we continue on this pathway, this year’s pandemic will not be a one-off event… and, as Attenborough also pointed out: “This year, we have been shown we have gone one step too far. Scientists have linked our destructive relationship with nature to the emergence of Covid-19”.
PS: Two of the things I’ve done during lockdown are: a) keep a daily diary (which, on re-reading, seems merely boring and repetitive – but, perhaps, it might ‘improve with age’ as a memory-jogger(?) and b) a book of photographs and sketches (see image).

Friday, September 04, 2020

august-september 2020 books…

The Last Days Of The Bus Club (Chris Stewart): This is the fourth book of Stewart’s I’ve read - of his life since buying a remote, hillside peasant farm (“on the wrong side of the river”) in Andalucia 20 year something years ago - so you won’t be surprised to hear that I rather like them! Trying to scrape a living during this period has clearly been fraught with difficulties. In order to get by, they’ve found themselves resorting various schemes and mini-enterprises (including sheep-shearing and, of course, writing) and his books essentially provide an account of their ongoing journey. Rather like the “A Year In Provence” book that I’ve recently re-read, it’s the various local characters who provide a wealth of the book’s charm. The “Bus Club” from the title relates to this final year of their daughter’s schooling, when Stewart and two of his Spanish neighbours used to gather together to meet the school bus… and generally ‘put the world to right’ (as you do!). It’s a very special, hopeful account about living simply - a funny, endearing, observant appreciation of life. My perfect lockdown book.
The Princess Bride (William Goldman): This is our next StorySmith bookgroup book (we decided on something of a ‘humorous theme’). To be honest, I hadn’t really come across Goldman before; I hadn’t appreciated, for example, that he was the screenwriter for the ‘Butch Cassidy’ film (I also hadn’t seen the 1987 ‘Princess Bride’ film). He died in 2018, aged 87. The book can probably be described as an action-packed fairy tale (with romance and revenge thrown into the mix). As a boy, William Goldman claims (but remember, this is fiction!), he loved to hear his father read the S. Morgenstern ‘classic’ (pure invention, of course), The Princess Bride. But as a grown-up he ‘discovered’ that the boring parts were left out of his Dad's recitation, and only the ‘good parts’ reached his ears… so here Goldman ‘reconstructs’ the book as a ‘good parts version’ along similar lines. I won’t even begin to try and summarise the plot… I’ll just acknowledge that, yes, it’s fast-moving, clever and full of intrigue, humour, love and revenge and an enjoyable, easy read (definitely a welcome change from pandemics and governmental incompetence!). However, I certainly didn’t love the book (unlike the numerous Goodread reviewers I’ve just noted online!). Goldman was much too full of himself for my liking and ended up finding his mocking asides/explanations/observations increasingly irritating! As ever, it’ll be interesting to discover what the rest of the bookgroup think.
All The Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr): I thought this was a wonderful, remarkable novel. It’s set in Germany and France before and during the German occupation of France. Marie-Laure is a little blind, motherless, French girl. She is six years old when the novel begins in Paris in 1934, where she lives with her father, a locksmith and keeper of the keys at the Natural History Museum. Werner Pfennig is an orphan in a German mining town, near Essen. He is a tiny boy of seven with a gift for science (and a fascination for radios in particular). Marie-Laure's father is also the creator of ingenious puzzles and delightful miniatures – of the streets and houses of Paris, for instance. The miniatures teach Marie-Laure, using her fingers as eyes, how to navigate the city. Ultimately she survives the destruction and desolation of the Occupation through the books she can read in braille. Werner's talent brings him to the attention of the Nazis, and he is sent to a national school that trains an elite group of Hitler Youth for the Third Reich. Marie-Laure and her father escape Paris in 1940, and take refuge in Saint‑Malo. Werner's genius is put to work tracking radio transmissions across Russia and Central Europe, until he is sent to Saint-Malo, where Marie‑Laure's great‑uncle uses his radio transmitter on behalf of the Resistance. Their paths ultimately collide… but I’ll avoid spoilers, so will leave it there! It’s a book about the morality and brutality of war; about coming-of-age; about endurance and the human spirit. It’s hauntingly beautiful and, once I’d got into it, I just couldn’t put it down. Wonderfully-written. Remarkable.
Ancestral Vices (Tom Sharpe): I first read this nearly 40 years ago. I used it as another ‘easy-reading-during-difficult-times’ book… on the basis that Sharpe always used to make me smile. Actually, unlike the ‘The Wilt Alternative’ book I re-read back in May, I found this one a little tired and predictable (yes, very funny in places… but also, for me, just too ridiculous and excessive). It felt a bit like a cross between “Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em”, “Fawlty Towers” and Miss Marple!! The words on the book jacket summarise matters: “left-wing academics, right-wing capitalists, true blue country gentry, workers, peasants, police and lawyers”. Entertaining, but also excruciatingly farcical (in a bad way). I don’t think I’ll be re-reading any of my other Tom Sharpe books in a hurry.
The Sacred Art Of Stealing (Christopher Brookmyre): I read ‘Ugly One Morning’ (another of Brookmyre’s books) quite recently and, at the time, had commented that I hadn’t altogether been convinced by the plot – which I thought it was a ‘little contrived’. As a result, one of my friends suggested that I should ‘give this one a go’… and so I did… and it was well worth it! So, this is a novel about Dadaist bank robbers and choreographed dancing gunmen in Glasgow’s Buchanan Street (I kid you not!) and a female detective who, in the words of one reviewer, is a ‘connoisseur of crooks’. It took me a little time to get into the book (60 pages of the 400 plus) but, once in, I couldn’t put it down. The plot is intriguing, ridiculous and yet utterly convincing. Very clever, humorous, biting social satire and irreverent. I loved it.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

july-august 2020 books…

Girl, Woman, Other (Bernardine Evaristo): Wow! I thought this was a simply stunning book. Wonderfully written, conceived and delivered, the novel follows 12 characters (most of them black British women) through their lives spanning an array of different decades. Each character has a chapter and, in these chapters, their lives overlap. Their backgrounds and experiences are all very different. There is much joy and celebration, but also sadness and struggle. Many of the characters are close – friends, relatives or lovers (I sometimes had to keep referring back to remind myself of the various relationships/links!). Having read a number of books recently on the question of race and colour, this novel only served to underline such issues… while also addressing a wide range of others (feminism, sexual-orientation; politics; class; prejudice; immigration; family etc etc). I’m a little in awe of Evaristo! It’s probably the best book I’m likely to read this year. Hugely readable, clever, entertaining, informative, funny and thought-provoking. Quite, quite brilliant.
This Is The Day (ed Neil Paynter): I first read this book of daily readings and meditations from the Iona Community in 2005 (published in 2003) and turned to it again at the start of lockdown (it covers a 4 month period). As someone who continues to struggle in my spiritual wilderness (which has been ongoing for a fair amount of time), I again found it a useful crutch… particularly the contributions from Kathy Galloway (who I was fortunate to have met during my two months on the island in 2012). The daily readings provided helpful reflections at the start of each day.  
Quite Ugly One Morning (Christopher Brookmyre): An entertaining crime thriller featuring a somewhat eccentric investigative journalist (and cat burglar!), who is happy to ‘bend the rules’ to get to the truth. Starts off with the gruesome murder of a doctor, before delving into matters relating to NHS Trusts (I’ll stop there… *no spoilers*). It’s quite amusing, gory and, frankly, pretty absurd in places. Although I found it an enjoyable read (despite the blood and mess), I wasn’t altogether convinced by the plot and frequently felt that it was a little too contrived.
A Year In Provence (Peter Mayle): I first read this book nearly 20 years ago… and felt that ‘lockdown’ was a suitable time to re-read it. Clearly, Provence is a beautiful place and the Mayle’s adventures in setting up home there are amusing, gentle and frequently very funny… but, while the descriptions of the region are evocative, the descriptions of the local characters are what make the book so delightful. The Mayles made various trips to local village restaurants to eat amazing artisan dishes and consume the odd bottle or two… and I frequently found myself wondering how they managed to drive themselves home after consuming copious qualities of the local vino. Interestingly, in the preface to my paperback edition, Mayle describes his mixed feelings about the effects that the book had had on their lives… wonderful to receive letters from readers etc but “sometimes less wonderful to find the reader on the doorstep, book in hand and tongue hanging out for a glass or two…”. It was also sad to note (from Wikipedia) that the Mayles relocated to Long Island, New York, to get away from fans and sightseers at his home in Provence (although he subsequently returned to France). He died in 2018, aged 78. I very much enjoyed reading it again.
My Name Is Why (Lemn Sissay): I bought this memoir after watching an ‘Imagine’ programme on television. Sissay is an award-winning writer, broadcaster and poet (he received an MBE for services to literature in 2019). At the age of 5 months, the “Authorities” placed him in the hands of “incapable foster parents” and then moved him from institution to institution until he was 18 years old. He describes the ordeal as “imprisonment”. This memoir is a harrowing account of his struggles of those early years and his 30 year campaign to obtain his records from the Local Authority. He suffered years of discrimination and prejudice due to his colour and, although he came across some ‘good people’ (like his social worker, the child psychologist and, finally, a woman from the National Association of Young People in Care), there was also a very long list of people who were cruel, dismissive, uncaring and abusive. Towards the end of the book, Sissay includes poignant, heart-breaking responses from other ‘inmates’ to a blog post he wrote in 2013 – who clearly had received similar life-damaging treatment in similar ‘institutions’. It’s a painful, powerful memoir which pulls no punches (it reproduces extracts from his records)… and provides a shameful reflection on how society treats some of its less fortunate members.   

Friday, July 17, 2020

june-july 2020 books...

Black River (Will Dean): I decided to make ‘lockdown’ my excuse for not waiting for the paperback version to be published (I know). This is Dean’s third Nordic noir crime novel (set in the northern wilds of rural Sweden) written by a bloke who grew up in the English Midlands (who now lives in rural Sweden in a wooden house he built in the middle of a forest). Tuva Moodyson, a deaf reporter, drops everything to return to Gavrik, a small town community in Sweden, to help look for her closest friend, who’s ‘gone missing’. It’s another intriguing, fast-moving, tense, haunting and compelling novel. Dean’s books seem to ‘borrow’ ideas from other writers/authors – but I’m happy to forgive him for that! – Tuva is very much in the same Saga ‘mould’ portrayed in the brilliant “The Bridge” television series (with her Asperger syndrome meaning that she doesn’t act in socially conventional ways) and the books themselves have the same ‘feel’ as Ann Cleeves’ ‘Shetland’ books (and even their titles/fonts bear an uncanny resemblance: eg. Dean’s Black River/Dark Pines/Red Snow and Cleeves’ Red Bones/Cold Earth/Blue Lightning etc)(and the same thing might also be said of some of Peter May’s books). Anyway, I’m not complaining… they tick all the boxes in my book! Predictably, I very much enjoyed this one.
Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (PG Wodehouse): I’m afraid I opted for some more ignore-what’s-happening-in-the-real-world, comfort reading. I last read this book eight years ago… it’s excruciating predictable, but Wodehouse does have a way with words and I constantly found myself with a smirk on my face! Effortless, light reading.
Black And British: A Forgotten History (David Olusoga): This is our “Bloke’s Books” bookgroup’s next book (which was also an excellent 4-part BBC documentary). It’s a very long book (nearly 600 pages) which tells the comprehensive and important history of black Britain and I thought it was quite, quite brilliant. It reaches back to Roman Britain, to Elizabethan ‘blackamoors’ and the global slave-trading empire. I had thought the book would concentrate on the lives of particular black Britons but, although it clearly does focus on some key individuals, the basis of the book revolves around slavery (and the US cotton industry/Civil War). I found the book hugely informative, humbling and, in parts, absolutely shocking. It made me realise that there was so much of the ‘black story’ of which I was quite ignorant or unaware. I knew I’d be depressed by 18th and early 19th century accounts of the slave trade but I think what shocked me most the attitudes, remarks and policies adopted by (mainly English) politicians only perhaps 70-80 years before I was born. It also acted as a hugely embarrassing reminder of the shameful colour prejudice views adopted by some members of my own family as I grew up in Birmingham in the 1950s/60s. It’s an authoritative and hugely important book (and the story it tells should surely be part of the school curriculum?) which provides a sobering background to the wealth generated for this nation through slavery and its resulting status as a world power.
An American Marriage (Tayari Jones): This is our next StorySmith bookgroup’s next book (we wanted to choose a prize-winning book and this won “Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019”). It’s about a young African-American married couple; the husband is wrongfully arrested and sentenced to 12 years for a crime he didn’t commit; the devastated wife (who knows her husband is innocent) struggles to comes to terms with events; she turns to their closest friend for support; the husband is unexpectedly released after only serving 5 years; he returns home ready to resume their life together… It’s very much an American novel which tells the all-too-frequent story of black people’s interactions with the criminal justice system (black men are disproportionately represented – 1 in 3 black men are likely to be imprisoned in their lifetime as compared to 1 in 17 white men). It’s also represents a demoralizing and infuriating reality for black families in the US - ripping away parents, children, providers, and supports, leaving vulnerable people and communities even more at risk. It’s a very readable book and Jones is an excellent writer, but I have to admit that, despite the plaudits from such eminent people as Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, I was left feeling somewhat unconvinced. I didn’t really believe in most of the characters (particularly the wife) – and, on occasions, I also found myself being irritated by American dialogue (but that’s problem just me). Maybe I’ll change my mind as I reflect on the book over the coming days (or after our bookgroup discussion) but, as things stand, it just feels like a 7/10 novel.
Lockdown (Peter May): A novel about a deadly pandemic wreaking havoc across the world (but with London at its epicentre) that was rejected by the publishers 15 years ago, because they deemed its subject matter “extremely unrealistic and unreasonable”. Well, who knew?! The story is something of a page-turning thriller involving a struggling detective inspector on his last day with Met who’s trying to track down a remorseless killer against a backdrop of a deadly virus that has already claimed thousands of victims… martial law has been imposed; health and emergency services are overwhelmed; violence and civil disorder are rife. May is one of my favourite writers and I finished this novel in less than 2 days. It was a little disturbing to read May’s perception of what life in a pandemic might be like (face masks; young people ignoring curfew rules; the race for a vaccine… and even the death of the Prime Minister)… he clearly undertook a huge amount of research. Our present government could definitely have learnt something from him! There were some aspects of the book that I found a little unconvincing but, overall, it’s an excellent, intelligent, thrilling… and somewhat sobering novel (even if there were moments when I found myself asking if this really was an appropriate time to read a book about a deadly pandemic!).

Saturday, July 04, 2020

covid-19: social distancing and other matters…

Today (4 July) sees a change in ‘guidance rules’ for the general public from the government – a relaxation of many of the ‘rules’ (the list is quite extensive).
I don’t envy the government in these difficult times… but I’m very critical of the mixed messages they’re constantly giving out.
There was yet another example of this just yesterday: an exasperated Wales’ First Minister, Mark Drayford, said this in connection with the government’s plans to lift travel restrictions: "Dealing with the UK Government over the last few days has been an utterly shambolic experience. If ever there was an example of making an announcement first and then trying to work out what you meant by it - that is what we have seen since this announcement was first trailed in the press...”.
There have been several such examples.

As far as ‘social distancing’ is concerned, we've all become used keeping a minimum of two metres apart, but the Prime Minister recently announced a relaxation of social distancing rules (due to come into force in England from TODAY) as part of the “next phase of the country's fight against coronavirus”. The new rules encourage members of the public to remain two metres apart "where possible" or "one metre plus" elsewhere. For the life of me, I’m really not sure what this actually means in practice… so I decided to check on the government’s website – and, yes, it contained these very same words… but then it added this somewhat ‘strange’ rider: “Please stay two metres from anyone you meet who you don’t live with”.
I suspect, especially for the young (if they ever bother to read such things), this essentially will be interpreted as “all bets are off, we can do whatever we like”.
I checked out another government website link (dealing with “staying safe outside your home”). This informed me: “The government recommends that you keep two metres away from people as a precaution or one metre when you can mitigate the risk by taking other precautions in this list”… the list include such things as avoiding being face-to-face with people outside your household; keeping hands+face clean; avoiding crowded spaces; using face coverings on public transport or in hospitals; avoiding “shouting or singing close to people outside your household”(!); and advice when at work or in business or public premises.
Two metres or not two metres? That is the question.
I’m still confused.
You might recall that it was only a few days ago Mr Johnson was in almost celebratory mood - telling us all it was “back to business”… indeed HM Treasurer almost issued a party invitation to all and sundry with its tweeted message: “Grab a drink and raise a glass, pubs are re-opening their doors from 4 July” (which, of course, it subsequently felt it had to delete). Since then we’ve had Mr Johnson giving a rather more sober message of “we’re not out of the woods yet, let’s not blow it”. It almost feels like an after-thought designed in such a way that, if it all goes wrong and there is a ‘second wave’ or a series of ‘spikes’, he’ll be able to say: “well, I did warn you”… and blame EVERYTHING on the British public!

Moira and I have been self-isolating for more than 15 weeks now.
We’ve been taking coronavirus precautions very seriously and decided from the outset that we would avoid shopping and the like (ie. avoiding people!), that we would maintain 2 metre social distancing, but that we WOULD endeavour to get out and walk every day (for both our physical fitness and our mental health)(still, as far as possible, avoiding people).
For me, most of today's rule changes don’t apply. I’ve been designated as “clinically extremely vulnerable” and so, basically, until 1 August, I need to continue as before. From that date, I’ve been told (by letter from Health Secretary “Matt” – that’s how he signed it!) that I will be able to go to work (as long the business is “COVID-safe”); that I can go outside to buy food and exercise (but need to “maintain strict social distancing”); but that I should remain cautious as I’m still at risk of severe illness if I catch coronavirus, so I should stay at home where possible and, if I do go out, I need to “follow strict social distancing”.
Ah, but is that two metres or “one metre plus” social distancing, Matt?
Rest assured, for the foreseeable at least, I’m sticking to two metre social distancing – whatever the government tells me.