Category Archives: Book reviews
When I picked up this volume from a library shelf, I never expected the term “children” to refer to the generations of Russian children that had grown up under the repressive regime of Stalin, whom they had referred to as ‘Uncle Stalin’.
The book is the story of the love affair between Owen Matthews’ parents: Mervyn, a failed British academic, and Lyudmila, a Russian lady who had survived 11 years of internment, and had been crippled by TB, in one of Stalin’s many prison camps. They met in the 1960s, during the cold war, when Mervyn was posted as a diplomat in Moscow, but found himself forever in the firing line of the KGB, who ultimately tried to recruit him as a spy. They failed to pierce his British membrane of loyalty, so had him expelled for ‘economic speculation’ (he tried to sell an old suit).
For six years thereafter, Mervyn and Lyudmila kept their relationship alive through love letters, while Mervyn exploited every diplomatic (and non-diplomatic) avenue fighting for Lyudmila’s right of passage out of Russia. Only when an exchange of prisoners, totally unconnected to their case, came about, Lyudmila was added to the deal as an afterthought. Sadly the marriage turned out to be unhappy. The epistolary happiness during the 6 years of separation could never be matched by the real thing.
Matthews, who followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a Russianist himself, travelling extensively in Russia as a journalist, and marrying a Russian lady, already had the imaginative background to pursue his research to discover some of the details of his parents’ tortured lives, during a period of Russian history when it was a miracle for both of them to survive.
This is a curious biopic of the early life of Stalin. What we know about Stalin now seems to bear little relationship to the man before he became the great dictator and the most notorious mass murderer of the 20th century.
In the early days he was an unlikely mixture of the ravenously hungry information-seeker and studious scholar, petty criminal, bank robber and womanizer. He spent nearly 10 years in Siberian exile, but he had used his time to study and create the network of contacts that would see his sudden rise to power during the Revolution of 1917.
Montefiore beguilingly portrays him as a loveable rogue, who excelled in working behind the scenes to further his espoused causes. His activities lay roughly at the level of minor mafia skirmishes, but he proved to be so useful and reliable to people like Lenin that his place within the party was assured. He had the knack and facility to bridge the gap between the educated bourgeois personalities within the party and the workers. He himself was from peasant stock, so many of his early ‘buddies’ in government came out of his own social network from Georgia.
This volume won the Costa Biography Award in 2007, and deservedly so.
This volume by Anne Applebaum (journalist and Soviet historian) fits neatly into the genre of popular history, but is, nevertheless, crowded with citations and archival references, which potentially give it an academic weight that some readers would find off-putting. Its subject matter, however, is still hotly debated and contentious.
Applebaum, who is partly Polish in her heritage, has been at odds for many years with the research and writings of typical western Soviet historians, who have generally ‘bought into’ the Soviet/Russian perspectives on history in order to gain ‘privileged access’ to archives and documentation. Applebaum remained rigorously independent during her formative years, gaining access to the people and the circumstances in which history occurred.
The dreadful famine of 1932-4 that killed an estimated 4.5 million Ukrainians has gone through so many permutations of interpretation that, at times, it has been difficult to know if it ever happened at all. The Soviet/Russian perspective has been dominated by propaganda and ‘fake news’ (according to Applebaum), but the thrust of the recent research (particularly amongst Ukrainians) demonstrates that it was not only real but it was directed and managed by Stalin himself. In other words, famine was used for political ends, in this instance to stamp out Ukrainian nationalism and to harness all the Ukraine’s agricultural produce for export, in order to finance the rampant industrialisation of the USSR.
A tough book to read because of its subject matter, but an important period of Ukrainian history that the Soviets tried to delete completely from the records.
In recent times, we have got to know much more about ‘David Millar the man’ through his expert TV commentaries on the grand tours, and he certainly comes across as a fine analyst of the interior mechanisms of the peloton and the tactics of stage racing. But his racing career had been beset by the scandal of doping, and this autobiography is his attempt to come to terms with that, and to communicate his side of the whole sad story.
I am always conscious that an autobiographer has complete control of his/her own material, and is likely to give a monochrome version of the events, as they have seen them from their own perspective. Not a bad thing, perhaps, but subject to all kinds of limitations. Millar, however, was very quick to confess to his crimes when discovered (unlike many of his colleagues in the sport), took his punishments ‘on the chin’, and eventually emerged as the mature experienced rouleur that he was with a very different agenda: to be an ambassador to help clean up the sport.
It is notable throughout his book that he is slow to incriminate others (perhaps a failing on his part), but is blunt and straightforward about holding himself up for scrutiny, and as an example of what happens to those who cheat. He was very fortunate to be given a second chance, and to make a come-back. He never expected the kind of support that came from people as eminent a Jean Marie LeBlanc and Dave Brailsford. He had expected to be treated as the outcast that befitted his crimes, but within a couple of seasons, he had reinstated himself and, ironically, found himself racing much better when ‘clean’ than doped.
If you enjoy confessionary autobiographies, this is a worthy read.
This semi-autobiographical novel has the most unusual structure of being a dramatic monologue, between the protagonist Changez and his non-speaking American listener, whom he met in a Lahore tea house. Changez recounts his own story, that of a Pakistani from an impoverished upper middle class background who goes to the USA to study at Princeton University. His degree takes him on a meteoric career with a company that assesses the marketable value of businesses before they are taken over, but his life comes crashing down in the wake of 9/11, when all American citizens of his skin colour become immediate suspects of being collaborators, and his failed love affair with Erica leaves him in emotional turmoil.
He walks away from his high-flying career and returns to Lahore, where a reassessment of his own loyalties to family and country drives him to reconfigure his own national identity, and begin to look critically at American involvement in his own country’s affairs. At the outset of his career in New York, he was asked by a co-worker where he would like to be in 25 years time, to which he answered: ‘a dictator of a fundamentalist Islamic state’. His answer may have been intended as a joke, but his quiet admiration for what the 9/11 attackers had achieved adds an edge to our assessment of the real character of this apparently pro-American Pakistani.
I suspect readers will be deeply divided about the merits of this type of fiction, but it certainly held my attention throughout, and the fact it has been translated into 25 languages and has been shortlisted for numerous literary prizes (including the Booker prize) is, perhaps, testament to it literary value.
A truly absorbing and moving first hand account of an idyllic holiday in the Masai Mara that suddenly turned into something of tragic proportions. Judith (Jude) and her husband, David, had spent a perfect week on safari in the Masai Mara in 2013, followed by the anticipation of a relaxing beach holiday just 40km south of the Somali border. The remoteness of this picturesque beach engendered both its beauty and its danger, and Jude felt uneasy about its deserted tranquillity from the outset. With good reason because, on the first night, they were awoken by intruders, David struggled with one of them, and Jude was roughly dragged off to a skiff, thrown on top of a pile of fuel cans, and taken off on a long journey, to be kept prisoner as a hostage for over six months in Somalia.
What she didn’t know for several weeks was the fate of her husband. She had fondly believed he was still alive and in the process of negotiating her release. She discovered, however, during the first phone call with her son, Ollie, that David had not ‘survived his injuries’. He had, in fact, been shot. What had already been a very difficult experience for Jude turned into something so painful that she wasn’t sure that she could survive.
This memoir is a very well written account of her six months in captivity, of the relationships she struck up with her captors, of her methods of survival, of the notes she kept (which were destroyed by her captors), and of the hourly pacing around her small room to help keep herself physically and mentally fit…….hence the title ‘A long walk home’. A remarkable lady and a remarkable story.
David Sore came to my attention during a BBC documentary about the Raleigh Cycle company a few weeks ago. I grabbed my phone as I was watching, logged onto my local library service, and found he had written a book about his cycle journey around the world, on his modified Raleigh bicycle, in the 1960s. At the age of 25, he began a journey of nearly four years, riding 35,000 miles through 21 countries, and his volume A journey round the world: a cycling memoir is his record of that journey.
Though it is a very commendable self-published account of a memorable, life-changing experience, and could be an invaluable guide to anyone wanting to dip their toes in the world of long-distance touring, it does suffer from a few flaws. Published 40 years after the experience, it relies heavily on his diary notes and latter-day research, and fails to ‘bristle’ with the liveliness and enthusiasm of a recent experience, a point I noted elsewhere with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy about his walk to Istanbul in the 1930s.
This ‘chronological detachment’ probably also encouraged a style of narrative that dwells overmuch on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of his journey: food, drink, camping, the gearing on his bike, and the almost mechanical focus on a place-by-place description of everything he encountered. It would have been a much improved narrative had he explored his inner feelings and perceptions more, his reactions to places and, above all, to the people he met. We learn very little of the man himself, what makes him tick, and how people along the way altered his perception of the world.
It is, however, a worthy read, a story that has a beginning, middle and an end and, even through the narrow style of his writing, he does give a flavour of the rigours of the life of the long-distance cyclist.
In a saner moment, I would never choose to pick up a book about cosmology, but then I had recently read the memoir of Jane Hawking Travelling to Infinity, which had led to a second viewing of the film The Theory of everything, so I had to complete the ‘trilogy’ by making an effort to read A brief history of time. It was not the challenge I had expected, even though many of the concepts went straight over my head, but Stephen Hawking very adeptly puts into layman’s language the very complex concepts about time, the universe, black holes and the continuing expansion of the universe.
I never expected to be so engaged, and that probably explains the more than 20 million sales in over 40 languages of a book that would normally be confined to the reading rooms of university research departments. Hawking succeeded in making theoretical physics ‘cool’, even though the vast majority of those who purchased the book (I imagine) have never managed to read it in its entirety, or not at all. Like Shakespeare and the Bible, everyone wanted to have it on their bookshelves, but few have made it a reading priority.
If you have a copy in your bookcase, I would highly recommend re-visiting it. It is certainly worth the effort.
When you discover that Bloomsbury pulled back all the review copies of one of its books before publication to pulp them, because something potentially libellous in its text was exciting a few lawyers, you know that the covers are going to be filled with some contentious thinking.
Brown and Woodhead have endeavoured to write an account of the last 30 years of the history of the Anglican Church, exposing what they think have been all the weaknesses and aberrations that have led to the spectacular decline in church attendance, and the end of a history where the Church was formerly accepted as an institution of the establishment. According to them, the Church is no longer the religion of the state, and its interior self destruction is as much to do with its own internal wars as it is with the general changes in society as a whole.
With so much rivalry amongst the different power bases (the charismatics, evangelicals, liberals and Anglo-catholics, to name but a few), and the radically different perspectives of the Church on continents like Africa and North America, it is astonishing that the Church has held together as a single institution. Then add to that the controversies over the ordination of women and the integration of gay priests and bishops, and you begin to wonder whether now is the time for them to call it a day, and break off into their sundry groups, and seek their own identities.
Jane Hawking, the first wife of Stephen Hawking, was moved to write her memoirs after Stephen decided to separate from her (and eventually divorce her) after 25 years of marriage.
She married Stephen knowing that he was suffering from a rare form of motor neurone disease, which was a progressive disease that would only grow worse in time, understanding that Stephen might only have a few years to live. She threw herself into the relationship with mind and body, made untold sacrifices to nurture her weakening husband, and do everything she could to support him in his scientific endeavours. In fact, initially, she put her own life on hold for the sake of her husband.
This moving memoir is a very detailed personal account of how she coped (or didn’t, in many instances) with Stephen’s altering physical state, his rapid promotion to the status of a world celebrity, of how she managed the upbringing of the three children she bore, her relationship with both sets of parents, her endeavour to complete her own doctoral thesis in medieval Spanish poetry, and the whole panoply of the ups and downs of the very hectic life they led. It is amazing how she simply survived.
At nearly 500 pages, this is the abridged version of her original memoir written in 1999, Music to move the stars, and became the inspiration for the much acclaimed film The Theory of Everything. The book held my attention unfailingly, and I would highly recommend it.
“I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.”
John Steinbeck’s self-portrait is Hemingway-esque, and the photo on the front cover of the Penguin edition confirms that comparison. Charley is Steinbeck’s large French poodle, who is going to accompany him on his three month circular tour of the USA, starting from his home in Sag Harbour, New York, heading north to New England, then west and down the Californian coast, crossing back to the east coast via the Mojave desert, Texas and New Orleans. His mode of transport is a pick-up truck with a small caravanette fixed on the back pan (which he named Rocinante, after Don Quijote’s horse), the motoring equivalent of a one-man tent.
This is the story of a man, now in his early 60s, needing to rediscover the people and places of his own native country and, in Steinbeck’s masterful prose, and through a keen eye for detail and an earnest desire to reconnect with the ‘music of the regional dialects and accents’ before they disappear altogether in the age of mass media, we are treated to an extraordinary narrative of a journey that carries the reader along as a willing guest.
I related strongly to his style of travel. Though my mode of transport is the bicycle, Steinbeck chooses the closest equivalent in the world of motoring, and his unpretentious needs and requirements partner the generosity he shows people en route, sharing a cup of coffee or whiskey with others, giving a lift to walking travellers, passing the time of day with lonely people.
His journey is also a time for reflecting and meditating on so many other aspects of his life so, much more than just a mere diary of three months on the road, it also serves as a personal memoir about his own personal thoughts and feelings. A very worthy read.
Josefina Aldecoa comes from a long line of teaching parentage, especially amongst the women-folk. Both her mother and grandmother were teachers and principals of schools before her. In this short novel Historia de una maestra, Aldecoa seems to be writing in biographical mode, the first-person narrator being her mother, and she featuring as the young daughter. But it isn’t exactly biographical because the dates of the narrative don’t precisely match the dates of her own life.
Set in the 1920s and 1930s in rural Spain, the protagonist, Gabriela, qualifies as a teacher, heads off to Equatorial Guinea in her bid to expand the horizons of her limited world, but contracts malaria and has to return to Spain. She finds work in a village school, meets and marries Ezequiel (also a teacher) and, through their growing involvement in rural affairs, become deeply committed to the new Republican government of the 1930s, which promised to bring major changes that would favour the lives of the poor and landless masses. The narrative takes us up to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, when Ezequiel was summarily shot for his involvement with the workers’ movement.
This novel is the first in a trilogy, the other titles being La fuerza del destino and Mujeres de Negro.
Having worked as a journalist for the BBC for over 40 years, John Simpson has a long history that provides him with the source material for his memoirs. Not quite world’s end is just one of his memoirs, covering the late 1990s and early 2000s, dovetailing in with his marriage to Dee, and the birth of Rafe (Raphael) their son, when Simpson was 62 years of age.
The whole book is an unruly kaleidoscope of reminiscences, both about his personal experience of world events, as well as the more domestic happenings in his personal life and how they have altered his perspective on the world. From Iraq to Afghanistan, from Russia to South Africa, from Argentina to Bosnia-Herzegovina…… there is hardly a tract of the known world that Simpson hasn’t reported from and, in keeping with the nature of his job, he was nearly always drafted in to report from some of the world’s most dreadful conflicts where, it was not uncommon, he would often put himself and his camera crew in the most compromisingly hazardous situations just to get that key interview or camera shots of the devastation all around him. He talks of such life-threatening situations as if they were just part of the routine of his work…….which, of course, they were.
But the ‘heavy stuff’ is often lightened by personal reflections, the relationships he built up with people, the food and drink he enjoyed, and the fun he had with total strangers. A very good read, and well worth putting it on a short list of books to read if, that is, you enjoy this particular genre of writing.
After all that has been written over the years about the history of the British Empire, you’d scarcely think there was room for one more tome. But here it is, by the inimitable Jeremy Paxman, preceding a television series of the same title which can be played-back on YouTube.
I fully expected to be reading a highly critical account of Britain’s role as a colonizer of a quarter of the world, but Paxman deftly sails a narrow course between the two opposing views. That doesn’t mean that he is not individually critical of individuals, or actions and policies, he is to devastating effect on many counts. He is not averse to lampooning key figures who ‘got it all wrong’ in their enthusiasm to build the empire, and holding up to scrutiny some of the appalling episodes that became key markers on the empire timeline, such as slave-trading, the opium wars, Amritsar and genocide in Tasmania. But in his desire to create some kind of balance, he also highlights atrocities committed by the colonized, such as the Black Hole of Calcutta, and the institutionalized paedophilia, hand-loppings and floggings that occurred in many less-administered corners of the empire.
Although he needed to give more space to the sub-text of his book: “What ruling the world did to the British”, he cannily leaves us to make up our own minds about the oft-stated claim that if any nation is to be subjected to occupation by a colonizer, Britain was definitely the most benevolent of the bunch. I leave you to make up your own mind.
It is a long time since a book has kept my attention riveted for 6-8 hours a day, and sometimes awake into the small hours.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, born in Somalia, brought up in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, escaped to the Netherlands as a political refugee, eventually becoming a member of the Dutch Parliament, came to prominence when a film producer, Theo van Gogh was murdered in the street by a Muslim extremist, with a knife in his chest affixing a letter addressed to Ms Hirsi Ali. She then embarked on the rest of her life (in 2004) regarded widely as the feminine version of Salman Rushdie, fearing for her life and living with the intense pressure of maximum security.
It is the story of a journey. Not just a physical journey escaping from one country to another, but a psychological and spiritual journey. She had been born into the ‘relaxed’ Muslim society of Somalia which practised excision (genital mutilation), and she describes that experience with painful detail. She joined the Muslim Brotherhood and became evangelical about her faith, but over time, she found many of her questions about the nature of her faith and its treatment of women unanswered. Her father forced her into marrying a distant cousin from Canada whom she’d never met and, on her way via Europe to join him, she made her escape into Holland where she (falsely) claimed status as a political refugee. This chapter of her life was to be the most tumultuous.
Deeply impressed at everything she found in Holland, she gradually lost her faith, became secularized, joined the feminist movement, and began to publicly denounce the practices of the Islamic faith, especially in the area of women’s rights. After the 9/11 attack in the USA, she went on record declaring that terrorism was endemic within the Muslim faith. The murder of Theo van Gogh resulted from a 10 minute film they had made together called Submission, and the letter pinned to his chest called for a fatwa against Ms Hirsi Ali herself, precipitating months and years of isolation and intense security.
In 2005, Time Magazine voted her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. She is now a naturalized citizen in the United States, has been elected a fellow at the Kennedy Government School at Harvard University, and is now married to Niall Ferguson, the controversial Scottish historian who also teaches at Harvard.
Título original: La suma de los días
This work of ‘bio-fiction’ sits comfortably amongst both her autobiographies and memoirs on the one hand, and her novelistic output on the other. She is a consummate story-teller, and she applies her broad-ranging skills to the narrative of her life after the death of her daughter Paula, at the age of 28.
We get the impression that she has written about this period, with all the people that populate it, with the candid freedom of a novelist, as if her subject-matter were fictional with no real-life consequences in the aftermath of publication. After all, it is well-nigh impossible to write truthfully of other people without treading on a few toes in the process.
I suggest this is a piece of ‘bio-fiction’ because I suspect that the book had to have the approval of all the family characters that appear in it. If any had disapproved, it would have gone through painstaking editing, or the characters would have been simply excluded from the story altogether. It is, after all, very hard to write about one’s family when they are all still alive.
I seldom engage with autobiographies that tell a story of rags-to-riches, or ‘how I overcame my life-threatening disability to become the person I am today’. The pattern of such autobiographies is predictable, the author concerned is usually a household name, or even a celebrity, and there is frequently a ‘look at my courageous rise from the depths’ flavour to the narrative. I began reading Nick Charles’ book fully prepared to be disappointed……
…..but I wasn’t. In his late teens, he was heading towards a successful career in entertainment, but he was also immersed in a world and culture of heavy drinking and, before long, the demon drink had taken possession of his life. The succeeding biography is a narrative about his scrapes with the police, his lost relationships with his family, his near-death experiences, and the pathetic people he rubbed shoulders with in the grimy underworld of the alcoholics.
But after nearly 20 years of drinking, he pulled himself together, married, opened the successful Chaucer Clinic for alcoholics, and was awarded the MBE ‘for services to people with drinking problems’, the first person ever to be honoured for such.
A very worthy read.
Curious that I should latterly come across a book, not only describing a journey that I had completed myself, but almost exactly at the same time as the author. The big difference being that Harry Bucknall spent nearly 100 days walking the route from London/Canterbury to Rome (in true medieval fashion), along the ancient Via Francigena, and I had broken with tradition and used a relatively modern conveyance to get me there in a quarter of the time……the bicycle. Cyclists and walkers usually mix very well on such ancient pilgrimage routes, but secretly the walker will probably look on the cyclist as a fraud, a cheat, absolving them of any right to call themselves a pilgrim (in the medieval sense, of course), whereas the cyclist will look down with pity on the walker as he/she labours slowly along carrying a heavy pack, arrogantly sustained with the belief that even riding a bicycle is still counted as ‘travelling under one’s own steam’. I was encouraged by one such pilgrim to try walking it one day, but I had to confess that I was too addicted to the wind-rush and the adrenalin-rush of travelling at 20-30km per hour.
Like a tramp like a pilgrim is a very worthy read. It may lack the sparkle and relentless humour of a Bill Bryson tome, but that is more than compensated by the fact he is a real traveller bearing the hardships and trials of the road, and his interest in the geography and history of his surroundings sustains the narrative well.
Bryson is at his best when anchored to his research desk, surveying the world and its idiosyncrasies with laboured intent, and crafting his reactions in a precise and detailed way. In the past I have cast aspersions on Bryson the ‘traveller’, in works such as Notes from a Small Island, Down Under and (more recently) The Road to Little Dribbling, but Bryson the forensic historian and linguistician is in a different league.
Made in America is a long detailed cursive look at the development of a country, from the arrival of its First Pilgrim Fathers to the present day. With every generation, and with every advance in industry and technology, the English that was originally exported to the new continent is gradually changed, making the language in its ‘pure form’ as used by the mother country look increasingly static and archaic.
To enjoy this 500 page journey through the development of a language, you have to be fundamentally interested in language itself, but Bryson does have the literary ability to get you interested in almost any topic, and this makes an entertaining and informative read for the general reading public.
To really get an inside view of someone’s life, though not necessarily entirely objective, read an account by someone who lived with him/her for several years and, in this case, bore his children, drank with him, fought with him, competed with him in the arena of marital infidelities………and the list could go on.
This is no reverential view of a man who has come to be viewed as the national poet of Wales. Not only did Dylan Thomas write with a poetic fluency that belied his lack of sobriety, but his poems touched deep seated nerve points for all humanity, and revealed a tortured personality struggling to ‘align the stars’ of his very existence. His death at the tender age of 39 was sudden and unexpected, but longevity was never really on the cards for a man who could ‘drink for Wales’.
Caitlin, his wife, was an equally tortured character, who spent the best part of 40 years as an unrepentant alcoholic but, in her final 20 years of sobriety (she lived to be 81) was able to reflect on the destructive relationship she had had with Dylan, describing in all its raw and explosive detail the alcoholic self-immolation that both of them submitted to, and couldn’t control. This is the story of two tragic lives, but from it emerged the immortal verse that is now celebrated across the world.