Tag Archives: literature

The Monday Book: Race to the Pole – Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Jack is the guest reviewer this week –

This is the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the south pole in 1912.

Scottgroup

I started reading this and almost immediately thought I wouldn’t like it!

Fiennes is clearly an upper crust member of the British establishment with an inflated sense of his own importance. All through the book he compares himself to Scott and a goodly part of it is about his own travels to the south and north poles.

But despite all that he managed to suck me in!

Fiennes really did do good research and approaches the more contentious issues very fairly. He also goes outside of the central story to get different points of view. This was also where I had some questions, though. Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, beat Scott by a month to the pole and is presented here as somewhat devious and a bit of a cheat. I see here Fiennes buying into the old story of the ‘above board’ British against those dastardly foreigners.

What is also well explained is the context of Scott’s doomed attempt – British exceptionalism, Government under-funding, class divisions, civilian/service divisions, limited meteorological knowledge etc. What also comes through clearly, though, is Scott’s abilities as a leader. He made difficult decisions, led by example and persuaded his team to incredible feats of endurance!

So my take away from this book is that Scott really was a doomed hero and Fiennes is a bit of a narcissist!

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The Monday Book: Life without Parole – by Victor Hassine

Jack’s guest post is actually the Monday book so could be on time or not –

life without parole

I have been a regular monthly visitor to our local Federal Penitentiary for nearly five years. Each time I visit with two inmates for around an hour with each and we talk about all sorts of things.

But the hardest thing is to get any idea of their everyday lives before and after the visit!

I got some idea from ‘Orange is the New Black’ by Piper Kerman, but that was from a woman’s perspective. However Wendy gave me Hassine’s book and that really opened my eyes. His experiences were in a state prison but I’m sure they would have been much the same in ‘the pen’.

‘Life Without Parole’ is a series of essays or interviews by an inmate sentenced to life in 1981 who was an educated and thoughtful man. He documents his experiences over time, his conversations with fellow prisoners and his observations on the culture of prison life.

Hassine makes no attempt to excuse his crime or to suggest he doesn’t deserve his punishment. He simply relates his life behind bars.

This book spares nothing and describes a desperate and harrowing world that I have had the tiniest glimpse of. Hassine doesn’t try to excuse either himself or any of his prison community, yet draws us in and shows us a parallel world that ‘there but for the Grace of God’ any one of us could only too easily be part of!

His analysis of the various problems with the prison system is scholarly and erudite and makes for gripping reading. Each chapter features an introduction written by eminent criminologist Robert Johnson, and the book is divided into three sections: Prison Life, which introduces readers to the day-to-day aspects of Hassine’s life in prison; Interviews, which presents a series of candid interviews with Hassine’s fellow inmates; and Op Ed, in which Hassine addresses some of the most significant problems within the current prison system.

The author was an Egyptian born immigrant to the US and a law school graduate. He died in prison in 2008 under unclear circumstances although it seems likely he took his own life following an unsuccessful appeal.

I can thoroughly recommend this book, which is now in its fifth edition, to anyone interested in prison life.

 

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The Beat Goes On – –

Once again Jack scrapes in under the wire –
Back when I was on the teaching staff at Swannanoa Gathering Celtic Week outside Asheville NC, one of the students who always attended my classes was Stefni. She sang in a choir in Pittsburgh that specialized in Eastern European music and she made their costumes. The last year I taught there Stefni didn’t show up and I wondered why. A few months later I received an email from her husband explaining she had died of a rare lung disease. That was very sad, but then he told us she had left her music and book library to us in her will! We were astonished and drove up there a few months later.
Sorting through her stuff was difficult and we came to an agreement to sell anything we didn’t want and split the proceeds. But that still left us with lots of stuff that never got put anywhere easily accessible.
Following our recent house move I’ve been sorting through the LPs and CDs from her collection that had never been properly stashed and I’ve been discovering amazing things. Mostly very rare English, Scottish and Irish recordings in excellent condition. It’s clear from the stickers on them that she was an avid collector and appreciated what she was finding.
So my upcoming radio shows will feature much from Stefni’s collection and keep her very clearly in my mind.
There’s no room here to list all the stuff, but it ranges from everything Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger ever recorded to very obscure albums by Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band.
Of course the books included full first editions of Child’s ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’, Bronson’s ‘Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads’, and Sharp’s ‘English Folk-songs from the Southern Appalachians’.
I hope dear Stefni Agin is looking down approvingly at the continuing life of her amazing collection as I try to do justice to it.

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The Monday Book: Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown

Jack’s doing the Monday book – so, of course it’s on Tuesday – –

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them; Nancy Marie Brown

Wendy brought me this book back from one of the bookstores she’s been visiting, promoting her book Fall or Fly. She was correct that it would interest me. It actually has little to do with the chessmen per se, but I don’t mind!

vikings

Brown uses the famous Lewis Chessmen as the mechanism for what is really a geopolitical and historical examination of the Nordic countries in medieval times. I already had some knowledge of the Viking connection to Scotland, Ireland and Northern England, and I even knew that the French Normans were originally Norse men.

But this book was a real eye-opener and introduced me to a world that was much more connected than I had thought. I obviously knew about the Vikings sailing around the north Atlantic but not just how much or how far. I knew nothing about their land journeys including taking part in crusades and hob-knobbing with English nobles!

“Ivory Vikings” can be a challenging read at times. The story of these ivory armies is woven through speculative historic tales of kings Harald Blue-Tooth and Svein Fork-Beard, with diversions into the 13th-century sagas of Iceland’s Snorri Sturluson and the early 19th-century literature of Sir Walter Scott, as well as accounts of the climate and topography of Iceland, the importance of walrus ivory from Greenland financing Viking raids and the origins of chess in India.

Margret the Adroit of Iceland turns out to be Brown’s favored candidate as maker of the chessmen. She was a carver of walrus and other materials and was famous for her craft in her time. One of the kings regularly sent gifts made by Margret to other rulers, one of the reasons the chessmen may be attributable to her. But I think my favorite of all the memorable characters in this book is perhaps Earl Erling Skew-neck who got his name after being whacked in the neck by an adversary in battle and carried his head at an angle ever after!

I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Norse history and their connections to other northern European countries – particularly Scotland and Ireland.

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Old Soldiers Never Die – – –

It’s Wednesday so it’s Jack’s turn again, but a painful one – –

It’s always sad when a dedicated customer passes away. Bill Peace was one of our beloved regulars. Those of you who have read The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap would find him in its pages as the guy with the bearlike shuffle and precision military corners.

Bill and Brenda

He was a true supporter of the bookstore from its earliest days and it was always a pleasure to see him. Early on he would come striding up the steps in front, then later he needed to use the ramp at the side. Either way, once in the front door he would very slowly traverse every corner of every room. His reading tastes were wide and included everything from US history to mystery novels. He never missed a shelf.

He never said very much, either, but it was clear that he valued having a bookstore in the town. Some customers chat while browsing, but not Bill. He kept his thoughts contained inside the omnipresent ex-military cap he wore, the emblem of his unit decorating its dark red. Mostly he would just ask if we had anything on ‘such and such’ or by ‘so and so’.

Eventually his health deteriorated and it was harder for him to get here. His devoted wife Brenda would drive him over to the side of the building and help him up the ramp. When that got to be too much, we’d get phone calls from him asking about particular authors or books, and organize pick-up from Brenda or his son David.

We knew that things were getting to be more serious from reports by David and his wife Felicia (another staunch pair of bookshop supports) who’d come to collect the books Bill had ordered over the phone.

Back when we started ‘Tales of the Lonesome Pine’ thirteen years ago we needed the support of established locals and we are very grateful to the ones who stepped up and showed their public support. Bill Peace was one of them and he helped enormously to make us feel part of the community.

RIP Bill – we will never forget you!

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The Monday Book

Jack gets to write the Monday Book post – so it’s a day late – –

Bringing Columbia Home – Michael D. Leinbach, Johnathan H. Ward

columbia

I stumbled upon this book in Greensboro NC where Wendy was doing a promotional event in a bookstore. Being a bit of an air and space freak I couldn’t resist it.

This is the whole story of the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle disaster, and Leinbach is probably the best person who could have written this book as he was at the center of the mission.

The book chronicles the whole tragic story from the first contradictory clues and suspicions all the way to the gathering of wreckage and crew remains. Along the way we encounter the interactions between rural Texans, Federal agencies, State organizations, NASA professionals, fellow astronauts and the family members of the doomed crew.

The things that stood out for me were –

The very sensitive handling of everything to do with the crew, their families and the inevitable evidence relating to their last minutes. The amazing ‘ownership’ by locals of responsibility for laborious searches for the tiniest fragments in pretty terrible conditions. Then the equally laborious technical work to try to establish what caused the catastrophe.

The book doesn’t shirk placing blame where needed but also lays bare the sheer risks that inevitably accompany space travel. I have visited the air and space museum in DC a number of times and always marvel when I look at the Apollo capsules. How anyone could sit in that atop a rocket and be blasted into space is completely beyond my comprehension!

Just last week I wrote about my memories of the PanAm 103 bombing over Lockerbie in Scotland and I couldn’t help drawing some parallels with the Columbia disaster. I suppose the biggest difference is that the crews of the space shuttles knew the risks involved!

Finally – it was shown after the cause of the crash was established that there would have been no way to rescue the crew even if the damage to the wing had been known. So, as they were carrying out their scientific work they were already doomed.

The book is written for the layman, is easy to read and I found it completely gripping from start to finish.

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Will ye no Come Back Again – –

Jack gets in under the wire with his Wednesday guest post –

I’ve been helping a group of local high school kids prepare for a ‘one act play’ competition, by coaching them in their Scottish accents. The play is called ‘The Women of Lockerbie’ by Deborah Brevoort, and is set in the aftermath of the downing of Pan-Am 103 on December 21st 1988, with the loss of everyone on board and a good few residents of the town too.

women of lockerbie

I decided that for our first meeting I would revisit my memories of that terrible day to give them a bit of context and also to put me back into the same space they would be occupying.

This is a bit like remembering where you were when Kennedy was shot, or on 9/11!

I remember very clearly the unrolling news during that day. In late afternoon all the TV stations were reporting what seemed to be two unrelated incidents. The first was a plane mysteriously disappearing from radar as it crossed the border from England to Scotland. The second was an explosion in Lockerbie and thought to be in a gas station. As the afternoon wore on and by the time of the 6pm news, the Lockerbie explosion was turning out be much bigger than first thought and it was obvious that the newsreaders were beginning to connect the two stories. By the time of the late evening news there were camera crews in the town and the images were horrific! I clearly remember seeing a man still strapped in his seat and fully clothed on the roof of a house – and that piece of video was never re-shown as far I know.

Thirty-five of the passengers who died were students of Syracuse University returning home for Christmas, and the mother of one of them is a main character in the play.

The play focuses on the bond that quickly became established between the women of Lockerbie and the those from the US who came to find where their sons and daughters had died. Both sets of women are feisty and willing to take on both the British and US authorities. The play finishes with the women insisting that they wash all the recovered clothing and return it to their American friends. As they wash the clothes they sing ‘Will ye no Come Back Again’ and I was close to tears by then.

I’m tremendously impressed at how these young kids have researched and got under the skin of this story – something that happened far away and long before they were born. If you get the chance to see their performance you should – Central High School in Wise VA.

As for me – I’ll never forget that day or these young folk!

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