Summer reading

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

Amazon UK

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 makes 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

Amazon UK

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

Amazon UK

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. 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

Amazon UK

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 on the road, 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.

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