Tag Archives: literature

The Monday Book

I Should Have Stayed Home: The Worst Trips of the Great Writers – Roger Rapoport

I should have.jpg

Jack is doing the Monday book this week (Wendy will do the Wednesday post)

I hardly read novels these days, much preferring history, biography or memoirs. This collection of short stories by fifty well known authors, most of them travel writers, falls into the memoir category I suppose.

I’m sure everyone reading this has experienced a ‘journey from hell’ at some point. Rapoport was able to persuade these well-known authors to contribute their particular ones. Some are funny and others are truly scary!

The idea originated with a student essay competition run in conjunction with a travel writers’ conference and the winning entry is included here.

Among the more famous contributors are Paul Theroux and Barbara Kingsolver and this brings me to the only problem I really have with the collection. Obviously there are great many different writing styles and some appealed to me more than others.

There are stories that focus on the sheer discomfort of certain modes of transport such as a hair-raising ride through the Egyptian desert in an ancient bus with an even more ancient driver. Others are more about culture clash and these tend to be more poignant and reflective.

Perhaps my favorite was about a stay in a supposed hotel that turned out to be a collection of huts that were infested – first of all with cockroaches and then with lizards that ate the cockroaches.

The book held my attention all the way through, though, and I can definitely recommend it as a good bed-time read that can be dipped into a few stories at a time over succeeding nights.

Maybe 4 stars out of 5.

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Socializing with Friends – – –

Jack’s guest Wednesday post –

There’s a favorite Scottish saying that goes – “we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns” (which roughly translates as “all human beings are part of the same big family of mankind”). When laid alongside Robert Burns’ famous song “A Man’s a Man for a’ That” it pretty much sums up my political views. I would therefore describe myself as a European style social democrat.

Scotland is an odd place in terms of its mix of entrepreneurship, inventiveness, canny financial acumen and sense of shared community. That last one perhaps stems from the highland clan system – the idea of extended family. Which neatly brings us back to Jock Tamson’s bairns.

I believe that there are certain things that any civilized community should provide to its members. That would include those that have health issues or just struggle to maintain an acceptable standard of living. That shouldn’t depend on the vagaries of charitable giving, but be organized, planned and paid for through progressive taxation. Of course this requires a healthy economy that can pay people sufficient to generate the tax income to pay for it. As a Quaker I have to also say that I believe far too much tax income is spent on making war!

Just twelve miles from my hometown is the one where Adam Smith, the father of economic theory was born. His famous book “The Wealth of Nations” is popular with lots of Neo-Liberal conservatives, however they always ignore the part where he says that market forces have to work alongside a safety net to protect the most vulnerable members of society. So even good old Adam was a social democrat at heart! Of course he was part of the European Enlightenment of the early 19th century and Edinburgh was an important part of that through medical research, philosophy and political theory.

In case this sounds like an advertizing feature for the Scottish tourist industry, I should perhaps remind you that Jock Tamson’s Bairns are all of humanity – black, white and every color in between – all religions and none – – –

So there you have it. I guess some of my American friends will have had their worst fears confirmed now. I’m the socialist their parents warned them about!

Duck and cover – – –

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The Monday Book – Paradise to Puddledub

Jack’s guest post is the Monday book this week –

Paradise to Puddledub – Wendy Welch (Lyngham House 2002)

As  you can no doubt understand this isn’t so much a book review as a book description. It’s not a marketing ploy either; the book in question is out of print!

PtoP

This was the first complete book by my wife Wendy to be published. She had contributed academic articles before this to specialist journals and story collections, but this was all her own writing. For some years she had written a weekly column for a newspaper based in Maryville Tennessee and she continued to do this after moving to Scotland. Paradise to Puddledub is a collection of some of the stories that were published in the paper during that time.

Immediately prior to moving across the Atlantic she had lived in the tiny Newfoundland hamlet of Paradise near St John’s in Newfoundland where she studied for her PhD in Ethnography. After moving to Fife and getting married she became curiously fascinated by an equally small hamlet there called Puddledub (the joke is that the Scots word for a puddle is ‘dub’ – so the name should really be either Puddlepuddle or Dubdub!).

Of course I was very much part of the critiquing and proof reading at the time the book was being written, so it was intriguing to stumble across a copy as we were tidying a few days ago. It has been my bed-time reading since then. Many of the stories in the book describe events that I was part of, and quite few have been retold at gatherings over the years.

I suppose my only reservation is that most of the columns had to conform to a fairly strict word count because they were written originally to fit half of a newspaper page. That means that there’s more to most of the stories that there simply wasn’t room for. There’s a healthy writing discipline to that, but…

The events described range from the hilarious to the poignant and occasionally horrifying. From my first attempt to eat fast-food in a British car going round a roundabout, to the kids in an Edinburgh housing project getting to grips with a performance during the prestigious Edinburgh arts festival, not to mention the heroic librarian ‘keeping calm and carrying on’!

If Wendy happens to read this guest blog, I’d like her to consider re-publishing the book, but with some of the pieces filled out to include all of the story.

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The Monday Book

Jack has the honor of the Monday book post (and just scraped through in time).

Portrait of a Legend – Spitfire, Leo McKinstry, 2007

I am a complete nut for airplanes (or aeroplanes as we Scots would say), so stumbling across this book in a thrift store in Oban in Scotland a couple of weeks ago was like discovering the holy grail (we also visited Roslyn Chapel on our trip).

I should say that as a Quaker I have very mixed feelings about warplanes, but the Spitfire seems to transcend that and can stand in its own right as a thing of beauty. Many of the pilot testimonies in the book talk of that beauty of the plane as distinct from the job it was designed to do.

Most books about the Spitfire paint a romantic picture of a machine that appeared just in time to ward off the Nazi menace and the winning of the ‘Battle of Britain’ in 1940. What I hadn’t realized until reading this one was what a struggle there had been from its maiden flight in 1936 to getting it into production. The company that designed it was a very small business specializing in seaplanes and had won a series of high speed races in the early 1930s with planes designed by R. J. Mitchell who went on to design the Spitfire. But the business was far too small to undertake the contract to build the numbers that were needed in the approach to WW2. Attempts to outsource production went disastrously wrong and the construction of a massive new factory went equally badly. Even after its acceptance by the public as the ‘icon’ of fighter command it continued to be mired in high level debate surrounding its suitability for a whole range of different and essential tasks.

spitfire

Despite all that it remained in service around the world from 1939 through the late 1950s in a wide variety of roles and still thrills crowds at air displays to this day.

I well remember seeing a Lancaster, a Hurricane and  Spitfire flying over our house near Leuchars RAF base in Scotland about 15 years ago at low altitude – six Rolls Royce Merlin engines making a wonderful sound!

I can thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with a passing interest in the story of this gorgeous flying machine – a big thumbs up!

 

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Intersections

Jack’s doing the Monday Book this week because yesterday was Wendy’s birthday – –

This is more about books in general and the kind I favor.

I tend to read memoirs, biographies, histories and novels that are set in the present. I tend not to read romances, historical novels, science fiction or fantasy. BTW – romances about the Amish may be popular but I’ve never read any.

The most recent read was ‘Monty Python Speaks’ which is really a history of the famous fellows from the their roots and on to infamy (they’ve all got it infamy). It included a reference to my big sister’s old school chum Denise Coffey, who starred in a precursor of the ‘Circus’ on British TV called ‘Do not Adjust your Set’ it even had her in a picture alongside Cleese, Palin and Jones. I was probably about 10 years old when I last was in her company.

So books can not only be a way into a particular world from the point of view of the author (and her husband), but also alongside a character referenced by someone else altogether. This gets us towards something else – altogether – –

One of my favorite writers of fiction is the author of the Inspector Rebus novels – Ian Rankin. They’re novels, but the author and Rebus are from West Fife where I also spent most of my life. He captures the Fife coalfield villages perfectly and those passages are very real to me.

So I suspect we (or at least some of us) live our lives, very often, through reliving our lives through others’ writings or maybe projecting our lives into others’ writings. We wander back and forth through our own lives, imagined lives, lives we’ve read about, imagined lives we’ve read about –

Aren’t books wonderful?

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Not the Rolling Thunder Review

In Wendy’s absence Jack gets to do the Monday book – on Tuesday

The Dylan Companion – Elizabeth Thomson and David Gutman

As some of you will know I am a BIG fan of Mr Dylan/Zimmerman. So I’ve read many books about him (and by him). This is among the better ones, though.

Thomson and Gutman have assembled a grand collection of essays and articles spanning the period from 1962 through 1998 and more or less presented chronologically. Some are fairly lightweight and ‘of the moment’ while others are quite weighty and academic. All, however, have a good deal of authority.

Of course there are many well known names here – Robert Shelton, Paul Stookey, Alan Ginsberg, Richard Farina and Joan Baez. But there some unlikely and little known ones too.

Everyone knows that Bob Dylan famously re-invented himself when he arrived in New York in the early 1960s – following in the wake of many other American idols (such as Buffalo Bill Cody or Ramblin’ Jack Elliot). What caught my attention in this collection were the pieces that pointed out how single minded he was in building his new persona. The interview with his early New York girl friend Suze Rotolo is revealing in that respect, as are a number of others. Also revealing is that he was clearly already a fine performer before he hit New York!

Because the final pieces are from 1998, there’s nothing about the ‘never-ending tour’ that still continues, but there a few that shed some light on Bob’s reasons for performing live and the tensions between his public and private lives.

Correction – the afterword in the 2000 reprint does briefly touch on his continuing tour.

As the title suggests, this is a book that can be dipped into at leisure while residing perhaps on your bedside table.

Finally – although there are no essays or articles here by the man himself, he is quoted extensively throughout.

“Come Gather ‘Round people”

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Keep Calm and – – -?

Jack is doing the Monday book this week –

Crime Control as Industry – Nils Christie

Regular readers of this blog will probably know that I visit inmates at our local Federal prison each month, and I’ve been doing that for over four years. It’s against that background and in that context that I’m reviewing this book – – –

One thing I had inevitably learned in my conversations with inmates was that there seemed to be an enormous economy surrounding prisons in the US, then research showed me there was a very disproportionately high number of African-American prisoners, and the overall percentage of the population behind bars in this country was among the highest in the world (the three highest are China, Russia and the US).

Christie’s book is mainly concerned with western European countries and the US, and focuses on the very different attitudes and approaches to crime and punishment in them.

Nils Christie is a Norwegian criminologist, and his world-view is naturally affected by where he is based and grew up. The first thing that caught my attention in this book was that (at the time it was written – 1998) there was a waiting list in Norway for folk to serve their prison sentences! The number of prisons was small and there was a consensus that people shouldn’t be crammed in, so folk carried on with their lives and waited to be told when there was a space for them. The sentences were fairly short in most cases and only the most serious actually received prison time at all. Despite this, crime figures were low compared to other countries.

What on earth was going on here?!

What Christie goes on to unravel is the very definition of crime, the need for ruling elites to create and then control a ‘surplus population’ and the market led industry that operates that control. At its crudest (which is always), the market needs a level of unemployment in order to suppress wages and allow the economy to compete with others around the world (this is exactly the thinking of the recent winner of a certain Presidential election). That ‘surplus population’ in the US has historically been mainly black, so there are residual racist reasons feeding into the equation as well.

So, where are we now?

Christie is/was tentatively optimistic that reason would prevail and that his Norwegian model would set an example, however, other more recent research suggests otherwise. The growth of private prisons, the economic market surrounding State, Federal and private prisons, the increase in the ‘surplus population’ and the demonization of anyone who isn’t a WASP.

Maybe the fact that I’m a WASP and can write this is a good sign? There again, maybe an algorithm has already identified me as part of the ‘surplus population’?

 

 

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