Posts Tagged ‘book review’
I’ve been pretty diligent at reading lately, and I’ve read quite a diversity of books for various reasons. Here are some reviews of what I’ve been getting through this summer when not travelling, writing, working and being lazy.
Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House
by Elizabeth Keckley
The first was a story I heard about in Futility Closet and was compelled to find out more. It is the autobiography of Elizabeth Keckley, an African American slave who buys her own freedom, sets up business as an accomplished dressmaker, and ends up in the employment – and close confidence – of the wife of the then American President Abraham Lincoln. It sounds like a classic rags to riches story, though it is a little more than that. I found it easily on the Kindle – for free, as with so many old books that are out of copyright – and got stuck in.
The story comes basically in two parts, beginning in the first half with a sweeping life story of the author, from upbringing in slavery in the 1800s through to her adult life and her eventual ability to buy her own freedom and start her own business. Her beautiful dressmaking is noticed by women in high society and she attracts the attention of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, soon living in the White House as her personal dressmaker, assistant and – in the end – closest friend. This first part is a dramatic story of triumph over adversity and the remarkable strength of the human spirit. It’s inspiring, enlightening, and mixed with tragedy and cheer. The writing, too, is beautiful – lyrical, rich and of flowing rhythm, and it is hard to read the story without the voice of a strongly-accented African American woman reading aloud to you in your head.
The book pivots on Lincoln’s assassination (hardly a spoiler, I’m sure), with the second half documenting her and Mrs Lincoln’s lives in the years afterwards, and particularly the late President’s wife’s mental and emotional decline. Mrs Lincoln comes over in a less than positive light – selfish, bitter, materialistic and often ungrateful for the writer’s unceasingly loyal support to her.
And here, the book changes tone slightly, from autobiography to historical documentary – the first half satisfies those interested in a gripping personal story of a real, ordinary American, while the second half, appeals to those want an expose of a famous person. It is for this second manifestation that the book was apparently controversial at the time of publication, and you can see why – barely some years after Lincoln’s assassination, the dirt is basically being dished on a major public figure, and while the second half is less enjoyable a read because the focus shifts away from the remarkable writer herself and the writing is a little less beautiful, it is easy to imagine what a storm it must have presented in American high society at the time. In that sense, the first half make the book fascinating, the second half makes it incredibly brave.
Whether womens’ history or American history, or a snapshot into White House life or the experiences of slavery and escape from it, there are many reasons why this book will appeal.
The Street King
by R K Lewis
I can’t remember how I stumbled across this short fantasy story, but I think it was on Twitter. As the book was free at the time, I decided to take a punt. It’s a shamelessly silly and ridiculous tale of an alcoholic tramp on the streets of Aberdeen, whose delusions and halucinations lead him on a a little adventure that involves magical cans of Special Brew, talking seagulls, and dwarves.
It’s a fun, absurd, and entertaining book with a few laugh-out-loud moments and a nice pace. It’s only a short story so is never going to be too much of a gamble; and you’ll never look at Aberdeen’s Union Street in quite the same way again.
Seeing The World My Way
by Tony Giles
I think this was another Twitter-based discovery, and is a quite original travel story by an English travel writer I’d not heard of. Good travel writing, naturally, appeals to all the senses – painting pictures of what the writer sees, hears, smells and so on. But what if you cannot see, and are dependent on the other senses? This is the story of, as the author puts it, a totally blind and partially deaf guy who wants to explore the world.
It’s an enjoyable read, not least at the beginning when the author explains how his wanderlust came about, and how his studies and a year abroad at an American university opened up the prospect of travelling by himself. It’s certainly a challenge for him, and one major theme of the book is his gratitude to the countless friends, fellow travellers and tourism workers who help him out along the way.
Giles has a no-nonsense attitude to travel, throwing himself fully into everything he can possibly do, with drink, sex and extreme sports featuring strongly in his insatiable desire for thrills and fun. As he leads us through his adventures in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and south-east Asia, he describes the things he does, the places he stays, the people he met and the culture he encounters with enthusiasm and vigour. He also offers compelling insights into travelling as a blind man – for instance compiling mental maps of the hostels he stays in (incredibly important when they have swimming pools) and dealing with banknotes in his wallet.
At times, though, the book is slightly repetitive in recounting his sometimes predictable diet of outdoor activities by day and drinking by night, and his drunken antics often come over as irresponsible rather than hilarious – though by his own admission “I was a selfish, arrogant bastard back then”. At times, though, his writing explodes in a multisensory feast – for instance on a hike through the New Zealand bush, he writes
“I enjoyed the smell of the soil and forest all around me. The intensity of the enclosed jungle, the darkness of the area plus the coolness provided by the overhead leafy canopy all added to the adventure. I felt everything, noticed the rugged earth steps, felt the vegetation as it snatched at my clothes and scratched my hands and face, smelt the dampness of the approaching river and heard the singing of the birds.”
Such prose encourages a sighted reader to reflect on whether they just take in the visual side of travel, or instead truly make the most of their other senses too when travelling, and yet the book has frustratingly few moments like this, when the narrative is at its best and is bursting with vivid description. Another strength of the book is when Giles visits Vietnam, which he has studied at university and he strongly enriches his account with his background knowledge of the country.
I see from his website that he is still travelling, and I hope that there are more books from him to come.
Is That Bike Diesel, Mate?
by Paul Carter
I first stumbled across Scottish-Australian writer Paul Carter through his two excellent, if laboriously monikered, oil industry memoirs – Don’t Tell Mum I Work On The Rigs (She Thinks I’m a Piano Player in a Whorehouse) and This is Not a Drill: Just Another Glorious Day in The Oilfield. In them he recounts hilarious and outrageous stories of his time working on oilrigs in all sorts of dodgy and dangerous places around the world, and both books are brought to life by his – how shall I put this? – energetic and characterful use of language.
His storytelling was the sort of engaging and readable style that would have lent itself to pretty much any personal experience, as he had a rich ability to bring characters and situations to life, even the most mundane. I was hopeful that he would write about other things, and in ITBDM he does.
A far cry from rough oilrigs, he opens his third book in a new world – fatherhood, a desk job, married life and bland Australian suburbia. To cut a long and enjoyable introduction short, his itchy feet and desire for the open road leads him to conceive the idea of driving around Australia on a biodiesel motorbike, a prototype university experiment powered by vegetable oil.
I say long and enjoyable introduction – it’s fully halfway through the book before the journey gets underway, but that’s no problem because the first half of the book is packed with humorous anecdotes about his new life away from rigs, his family, the genesis of his idea, and the people he meets along the way to making it happen. He then describes the technical and physical challenges of doing the trip, with lovely descriptions of the people, places and scenery he encounters along the way, and the difficulties he and his support team have to put up with – such as aggressive drivers, poor quality roads, and intense heat.
Indeed, there’s a refreshing interlude in the book thanks to one particular problem – a nasty crash in which Carter damages some ribs and spends a week or so in hospital. The one criticism I would make of the book is that as someone with no interest in cars, bikes or engines I found the detailed descriptions of the technical side of the challenge, such as the components of the bike and the difficulties in finding spare parts, a little boring in places. As such, for me, the book bursts back into life as Carter brilliantly relates the pain, frustration and boredom of being holed up in a Queensland hospital, with cracking anecdotes and dry wit. I’m rather ashamed to say I was a little disappointed when he recovers, gets back on the bike, and cranks up the petrolhead content again.
But it’s a funny book, with Carter, his friends and support team, and various characters encountered along the way, all providing great company. It’s also a fantastic advert for hitting the road down under. Australia, above all, comes out enticingly in this book.
Not because it’s an excellent read (though it certainly is that), but because something happens towards the end that casts confusion and doubt over everything you’ve read so far.
And when you do read it again, you realise just how clever the opening is at setting the tone for the rest of the story. Then throughout, you see clues that you didn’t pick up on the first time around, but which on the second read scream so loudly about what they so blatantly point at, that you think you must have been stupid to miss them the first time.
Or maybe it’s just me and I really was being stupid the first time.
When I read this originally two or three months ago, I remember thinking that I was quite enjoying it but not as much as the author’s first book (more on which later). Then I got to that “game changer” near the end. I’ll not spoil the book by revealing it here, but if you read A Method Actor’s Guide… then you’ll see what I mean and will understand why I’ve chosen not to spoil it.
The novel is set in Edinburgh, and revolves around the life of a struggling actor, Robert, who is finding it hard to get on with his forthcoming performance, a stage version of Jekyll and Hyde, and who has more than a few personality clashes with his fellow cast. Though clearly a thoughtful and and intelligent character, Robert’s ability to rub people up the wrong way and tendency to self-destruct leads to an enjoyable and often tense tale of man versus world.
To say more would reveal some of the twist, but suffice to note that the story deals with issues of our sense of self and sense of place, in a way that clearly draws on the author’s own interests in philosophy and his love of the character and nature of Edinburgh.
Having just recently finished my second read-through of it, I’m now a little clearer about what precisely it’s all about and what happened, though the book is so rich and deep that there are still questions in my mind I can’t quite figure out.
Maybe I was being stupid the second time too.
While it’s a great book, and highly recommendable, it would be remiss of me to blog about Kevin MacNeil without mentioning his first, and in my view better, novel The Stornoway Way.
Given it is about his native isle of Lewis, and is a less than complimentary portrait of its main town, Stornoway, the first thing to say, therefore, is that this is an exceptionally brave book.
The characters, both central and background, are vividly described and their real-life inspirations are probably quite easily identifiable to those who know the town. However the book is all the better for its brutal honesty.
The main character, who carries the pseudonym R Stornoway, is a drunken waster, a man struggling to come to terms with both himself and the town in which he lives. His ambition and failings embody the curious personality of the town.
Mixing R Stornoway’s whisky-fuelled introspection with powerful demonstrations of human capacity for self-destruction, it might not be too far off the mark to suggest The Stornoway Way is like Trainspotting, but with whisky and Stornoway replacing heroin and Edinburgh as its two backdrops.
Growing up in the Uists, Stornoway was in a sense “the big town” to me, and I remember noting on a school visit aged around nine or ten just how big and scary the place seemed. From my experiences of the town over the years, there is an odd duality about it – its people are worldly: intelligent and great travellers. But there is an insularity about it too; as if people think it’s the best place in the world even after checking out all the competition.
This is summed up perfectly in one of the most powerful lines from the book, when our anti-hero declares “We do not live in the back of beyond, we live in the very heart of beyond.” In those words, I have never read a better description of the character of Stornoway or Lewis.
The Stornoway Way is not just an immediately local book though. Things wider than the personalities of Stornoway are sent up, including aspects of island and Gaelic culture, and anyone who has watched more than a little Gaelic TV or spent time in the Highlands and Islands will laugh knowingly at the biting references to everything from the Mod to the area’s tragically rampant alcoholism.
The book should therefore be useful reading for anyone with an interest in the contemporary Highlands and Islands, smashing as it does the romantic view of this part of the world as a quaint, picture-postcard land of earnest faith and friendly locals. It’s probably the only novel set in the Highlands that I’ve read which doesn’t contain an ounce of cliché or kitsch, and that has to count for a lot.
On a wider level, though, a broader audience will recognise the themes of small town life, the struggle for personal meaning and identity, the fickle nature of friendship, and the humorous reflections on humanity as a whole.
Like A Method Actor’s Guide, The Stornoway Way demonstrates the author’s magnificent powers of observation, his brilliant characterisation, and his immensely poetic use of language. Indeed, I shouldn’t understate the poetry and language in either book, nor the fact that MacNeil is as renowned a poet as he is novelist (not to mention playwright and musician).
I am not, I must confess, a voracious reader of Scottish fiction, but Kevin MacNeil is probably my favourite Scottish novelist, past or present. Both the above books are a pleasure to read, and ones I’d heartily recommend.
Since then I have read some of his other stories, not least the recently-published sequel to Haven. It followed on the story from the cliffhanger ending to the first one, and while enjoyable I found it perhaps just a little long in places.
However, much more enjoyable, and indeed the best thing by him that I have read so far, was a magnificent space adventure called The Legend of Ivan. In the future, when humanity has scattered throughout the galaxy, there exist human-robot hybrids called archivists, creatures of immense mental power who store, and unyieldingly thirst for, knowledge – to the extent that they fight to the death on the rare occasions they meet each other.
The Legend of Ivan tells the story of one archivist, Sid, who is commissioned to get to the bottom of a series of myths and imperceptible half-truths about a man called Ivan, whose reputation for extraordinary feats of violence is one of the era’s abiding mysteries.
Taking us through a variety of worlds, Sid’s explorations lead to him encountering a weird and wonderful collection of people and situations, with wonderfully evocative portrayals of worlds and lives that represent the very worst of both the heart and periphery of human existence, all the while contemplating his own existence and role as a cyborg.
Painting a picture of a wild universe, with good uses of humour, action and drama, The Legend of Ivan evoked echoes of Firefly and Blade Runner; an imagining of a universe that was none too positive but certainly all the gripping for it. I hope Justin Kemppainen returns to that universe again: there seemed to be a lot going on that received only the most tantalising touches.
Anyway, if you’re interested in the story, he’s just announced that it will be free on the Kindle on both sides of the pond for a few days, so it’s a risk-free punt.
It’s hardly your typical cheerful and easy holiday read, but while in France I finished off The Long Bridge, a memoir of a Polish woman’s experiences in Soviet gulags.
I probably wouldn’t have known about it were it not for the fact that it was published by my publisher, Sandstone Press, nor have bought it had I not happened to be in Edinburgh and have a free evening when it was launched a few months ago. Though I have enjoyed (if that is the right word) other books in that genre, including by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Arthur Koestler and – not strictly the same but nonetheless related – another Sandstone title, Shadow Behind The Sun.
Such books are inevitably dark and horror-filled, but the small lights of hope we find in the key characters burn strongly and hopefully, making all the more powerful comments about the strength of human nature and the importance of hanging on to what good there is in the world.
The Long Bridge is written by the late Urszula Muskus and brought to life by the efforts of her grandson Peter who lives in the Highlands, and is her account of her life in prison and labour camps in the 1940s and 1950s under Stalin. Like most people in that extensive, hellish network of Siberian prisons, Muskus was no true criminal nor deserving her decade or so’s sentence – merely she was one of the many middle class professionals (or family members thereof) imprisoned for entirely spurious reasons by the paranoid Soviet leader Stalin from throughout the Soviet Union itself and its emerging central European empire.
The book starts with an evocative description of life in an ordinary Polish (though today Ukranian) village, over-run at the outbreak of World War 2 firstly by the Nazis and then by the Soviets, followed by the latter’s arrest of Muskus’s husband and the author’s own subsequent incarceration.
We then follow her from camp to camp, spending often years in one place, and Muskus is very selfless in her descriptions – she describes her multinational fellow inmates in great detail, not least their suffering, life stories (she appears to be someone others open up to easily) and hopes. The work in the camps is invariably gruelling, the treatment by guards brutal, and the food awful, but the author’s stoic approach throughout demonstrates a real strength of character. She was clearly a strong, determined, intelligent woman, with a mother’s compassion and a voice very similar to that of Remzije Sherifi, author of Shadow Behind The Sun mentioned above.
While a certain degree of restraint and selflessness is entirely admirable, and is probably part of what helped her survive, it does lead to the occasional moment where you feel the book dulls the horrors of the story, and because she is so dispassionate about her own afflictions we only truly connect to the evil of the gulags when she describes others’ endurances. But the strength of character of Muskus shines through the book, not least in the introduction, explanatory footnotes and postscript provided by her grandson. The conclusion is suitably moving, with a marvellous reflection on human nature that belies the horrors she has experienced.
It’s a beautifully written book about an entirely unbeautiful period of history – which is, scarily, still within the lifetimes of people alive today. Stalin’s gulags were one of the last century’s great evils, and this book is a good way of hearing from those that experienced them.
I like to say that my political retirement must be one of the earliest on record: I quit the Scottish National Party when I was twenty-one, and after being active nationally for some years in the party I am quite sure there is a “Sliding Doors“-esque parallel universe version of me who is still heavily involved and, who knows, is perhaps even a career politician.
I don’t envy my imagined alternative self for a microsecond. I’ll not bore you with the reasons why I gave up active politics (though when I left the SNP I did not stop supporting them or voting for them), but it left me in a position where I could enjoy commenting on politics without any line to tow, or indeed also enjoy being utterly apathetic if I felt like it.
One consequence of this has been that I now read considerably less political stuff than I used to, and probably wouldn’t have read the 2010 biography of SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond had I not received it as a present last Christmas. I had every intention to read Salmond: Against the Odds before May’s 2011 election, but various things got in the way and as such I ended up reading it after that astonishing SNP landslide which I am sure would have changed the tone of the biography had it been released now. Though of course, that’s the problem with biographies of people who are still alive and displaying few signs of changing that designation – there’s no perfect time to write them because the story is still constantly being written.
I should declare a brief connection before I continue – I know the book’s author, journalist David Torrance, from university days and recall on one occasion being interviewed by him for the student newspaper, Gaudie, while I was president of the university’s SNP society. David’s article quoted an unnamed source as describing me as a “psychopath”, which proves firstly that he was set on a path for high-powered in-depth journalism and secondly that I made the right choice when I got out of politics.
Alex Salmond, for the uninitiated, has been SNP leader for two stints, the first beginning in 1990, and became Scotland’s First Minister in 2007 when the party won a wafer-thin victory in the Scottish Parliament elections, a lead unexpectedly extended in last year’s elections to create the parliament’s first-ever overall majority. The major consequence of this is that there will almost certainly be an independence referendum, probably in 2014 or 2015, and these two major votes past and future will prove a fascinating new chapter to the book if ever David Torrance chooses to update it.
At times, Against the Odds reads like a general history of the SNP or a summary of Scottish politics through the later 20th century, rather than a pure biography, but then again this is firstly reflective of the frequent perception that Alex Salmond is the SNP or that the party is a one-man band. Because more than being First Minister, Salmond has been one of Scottish politics’ biggest figures for years, and his incredible skill, political astuteness and phenomenal debating ability that has swept aside many opponents all suggest that had he been a member of a UK party, he’d doubtless have been a major frontbench figure and, most likely, a Prime Minister if he had been a a member of the Labour or Conservative parties. And secondly, Salmond is an infamously private person, rarely discussing his private life and – unusually for a major politician – fiercely keeping his wife from the limelight.
As such, though it is surprising it has taken so long for a biography of such an important figure to appear, the book is all the more remarkable that it is able to tell us anything of Salmond at all given the subject’s tendency to privacy. It reveals stories from Salmond’s early years and family history, while quoting friends and colleagues – often anonymously – from throughout his studies and career. If I have a criticism of the book, though, it is the frequent quotations of one figure from the party’s history, Salmond’s long-standing rival and critic Jim Sillars, who – as far as I recall from my active SNP days, was little more than an irrelevance to the party at that time so must be even more so today. But it demonstrates a depth of research and a balance of perspectives that does leave as few stones unturned as possible in the portrayal of Salmond’s life.
The question at the heart of the book is what makes the man who became First Minister tick, and in a life seemingly devoid of ill intent, scandal or personal failings, the answer seems to be a genuine passion for Scotland and an enthusiasm for revealing its untapped potential. The author, to my knowledge no SNP supporter himself, has therefore produced a book that will probably reinforce the views of Salmond’s fans, reassure any neutrals, but provide no new ammunition to his enemies.
Scotland is at an important point politically, with a party and parliament dominated by one man who will (rightly or wrongly) be firmly centre stage in the forthcoming independence referendum. It’s right that we know something of that man’s history, and so Against the Odds is an important book, and engagingly written.
It’s not making me miss active party politics one bit, though.