Monday, 25 January 2010

Book learning 60: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.

The Uncommon reader by Alan Bennett

Ah, Mr Bennett, you of wuffly National Treasure delightfulness!
Having recently dipped my diseased toe into the post war trauma of 1918 it was high time I found some joy.
And such joy it was, stolen, witty, approachable yet deadly.
Using that most recognisable yet unknown of central characters , a devilish plot within which reading is a vice and a host of good supporting characters Bennett crafts a tale which is a pocket sized gem with a sting in the tail, a twist so unthought of, yet so logical.

Wonderful stuff, Thank you Mr Bennett.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Book Learning 59: The Great Silence 1918-1920. Living in the shadow of the Great War. By Juliet Nicolson

The Great Silence 1918-1920. Living in the shadow of the Great War. By Juliet Nicolson

I'm not sure if my childhood obsession with World War One has ever really been too prominent in this blog. It's the historical obsession that predated the historical obsession with American history. Between the age of 11 and 17 it was all about the Schlieffen plan, Passschendaele, Zeppelins, President Wilson's 12 points (oh? Do you see a link?)

Cut to 2010 and the pile of books delivered by Santa.

This surprisingly accessible read deals with the zeitgiest of the two years immediately following the November armistice in 1918, as such, it's primary concern is grief. The book follows the seasons as the nation tries to come to terms with the apocalyptic loss of the previous four years. Along with the extremely traumatic side of things such as severely disabled veterans, early forays into plastic surgery and the various coping mechanisms of the bereaved the book also looks at elements of popular culture, the mood of the people, industrial relations and the decisions behind some of the iconic monuments commemorating the loss of the Great War (The Cenotaph, The Unknown soldier). Throw all this together and it makes for a powerful and absorbing read.

I began reading this in the full flush of health, then I got a hefty dose of swine flu. I couldn't read or do anything for a few days and when I did eventually sit up in bed I wasn't so sure that I wanted to be reading about the effects of Spanish flu, however the time did allow me to really get into the book in a way that's just not possible when you grab twenty minutes before bedtime. Having said all that, I would not recommend swine flu as an aid to reading.

It was the human angle that came through strongest, the book was based largely on anecdotes or diaries and the emotions people experienced were refreshingly honest, some thought the idea of a ' tomb of the unknown warrior' insincere or disrespectful, children were creeped out by disfigured veterans, young women who just wanted everyone to get over it. A good insight into a lost age and not without lessons for our own times.

Book Learning 58: Blue Blood by Edward Conlon

Blue Blood by Edward Conlon.

The first of the Christmas books bites the dust.

A pacey first 350 pages which stalled abit after that, became a bit repetitive. I still thoroughly enjoyed it even if I did flick a bit towards the end. The most enjoyable parts were the history of the NYPD and the folklore angle.

At various parts of this, I felt homesick for the old place.

I'm gonna pass this onto a good old friend.

Book Learning 57: Lincoln's melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk

Lincoln's melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk

This is a Presidential biography, not a textbook on depression. I picked it up (almost three years ago) as a presidential biography, enjoyed that part and also enjoyed the mental health part.

As mentioned, it's taken me almost three years to finish this. A transatlantic move can do that. A transatlantic move and a missing book, a missing book that is then picked up again in between some others.

Despite the logistical struggle to read and finish, I thoroughly enjoyed this account of Lincoln's life, work and mental health. The contrasts between the fabulously gothic nineteenth century approach to the mind and the more clinical twentieth/twenty first century treatment of depression was illuminating. The accounts of Lincoln's own depression and struggles centered the work in a way that a more straightforward narrative about depression would probably not. In short, I learned a bit about depression that I would not have done otherwise. I also learned a bit about Lincoln.

I absolutely loved the gothic tone, found the overview of Lincoln's career fascinating and was completely absorbed by the Civil War chapters ( LIke so many, this was the Lincoln I first learned about). This book (or at least the final couple of chapters that I've just polished off prior to a few new arrivals on the 25th) perfectly fitted my present mood, the dark winter nights, the bitter cold, the American gothic Victoriana. Wonderful stuff.

Book Learning 56:The secret history of the IRA by Ed Moloney.

The secret history of the IRA by Ed Moloney.

I've always been interested in Irish history, always felt that republicanism made sense. Reading this didn't change anything in particular, didn't cast any new light on the main events as they were often passed over with a glance. This was not a chronological account of the last 40 years. The real story here was the internal politics of the IRA since 1969 and the dealings of a certain Gerry Adams in taking over the organisation and heading it into a peace process that continues to this day.

In some respects it read like the Sopranos, just not as nice. There were aspects of the story that baffled me, no mention of the Brighton Bomb of 1984. The Birmingham 6 and Guildford 4 were never mentioned (although the Balcombe Street gang, who one can assume had a hand in the bombings were on a number of occaisions) and many of the attrocities were quickly passed over. Reading on, you began to understand, this was not about a list of bombings and murder but how the IRA leadership dealt with it's continual internal feuding, negotiating and violent games. Still, the last split, which created the Real IRA was detailed, their most notorious action, the 1998 Omagh bombing was not.

The political side of it was fascinating, the posturing on all sides, the deals with Libya, the global angle, the role of the Catholic church and also seeing how the situation changed over the years from civil rights marches in the late 60s through the terror of the 70s into the stalemate and near defeat of the IRA in the 80s.

I enjoyed this, absorbing once I got beyond some of the annoying omissions.

Book Learning 55:The Lion and the Unicorn; Socialism and the English Genius by George Orwell.

The Lion and the Unicorn; Socialism and the English Genius by George Orwell.

If it's autumn, it's Orwell. This particular book is an old favourite, one of the very few books that I can reread.
Anyone interested in English society, culture, politics and history (or any one of the aforementioned) should read this book.

It's Orwell's 'why we fight', his perspective on the England of 1940, what's worth fighting for and what should be swept away at the next possible opportunity. I've been fascinated by it since I first read it over twenty years ago and whilst aspects of it are clearly dated, enough of it still makes sense when thinking about modern Britain (Orwell, the consumate Englishman, never refers to Britain throughout the book).

One of the things I appreciate about Orwell, which comes through in this book, is his own pragmatic approach to socialism and patriotism, the two are compatible and should be regarded alongside each other. He decries the right's ability to hijack patriotic feelings in order to pursue capitalist economic policies.

I could go on.

I have recommended this book to people (my wife included) who have looked upon the UK from the outside, some of them read it, appreciated it, but for others it seemed to not quite give them what they were looking for, then I realised, the audience Orwell was aiming for was the English working classes/reading classes of the 1940s. It's not a guidebook in that sense.

This book still means something to me as someone who cares deeply about the cultural, economic and political future of the UK, less of a naked patriot than I used to be (except when the World Cup rolls along) but still in love with the old girl all the same.

Book Learning 54:Paris, The secret history. Andrew Hussey.

Paris, The secret history. Andrew Hussey.

Well, This just adds another brick in my tower of admiration for the world of public libraries.

In a state of literary ennui, I was browsing the shelves of the local (and quite fantastic) local library when I came across this. It came home with me. I liked it.

Beginning with the prehistoric stuff and moving through the Romano-Gaulish history (most of which I learned from Asterix and was delighted to discover from a real book that so much of what Asterix had taught me was true) and moving through some disgusting medieval developments, sketchy seventeenth century intruigue, the great French Kings, the 1789 revolution, Napoleon, Commune, World Wars and 1968.

Thoroughly readable, entertaining and really, very sexy, this was a good read. I've known Paris down the years, after New York , London and Norwich* it must be my favourite city.

*Favourite cities. In order.

1.New York
2.Brooklyn (keeping the dream alive!)
7.Paris (OK, I misjudged this a bit)
10. Washington DC**

**Based on limited experience and OCD American history fixes.

Book Learning 53: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.

I don't think I've ever picked up a book with such loaded preconceptions before. I don't think my preconceptions have ever been dashed away in quite such an agreeable fashion.

Up until July 2009 I associated the phrase 'Brideshead Revisited' with useless upper class fops wincing about Oxford and hugging teddy bears. I thought that was the whole story. Despite the fact that I have read and for the most part, enjoyed, a lot of Evelyn Waugh's books I had never tried this one, the image of the 1981 TV dramatisation (abovementioned fops etc) completely put me off, despite the fact that I had never even seen the TV version.

It was a wet Sunday afternoon when I found this on a shelf at a friend's house. I took it home and became engrossed. It was perfect for light summer evenings, romantic and nostalgic yet real enough in terms of characters and plot to keep the lower middle class twentyfirst century reader engaged.

There is only one teddy bear hugging upper class fop, though prominent throughout as a theme, he features little in person. Even then, in the book he's a sympathetic character.

Book Learning: Help!

I'm in that place again.

I need suggestions.


Book Learning 52:America, Empire of liberty by David Reynolds

America, Empire of liberty by David Reynolds

I have a favourite brand of chocolate bar. Well known within my family, I receive one twice a year, at Christmas and on my birthday. On each occasion I unwrap the chocolate bar, place it in the fridge and nibble on it for months (not being a huge fan of chocolate) a chunk here, a week or two later, another chunk. It's treating chocolate the way some people can smoke twice a year when they enjoy a little too much red wine. It's a testament to the non addictive side of my personality, a feat of restraint.

I was given this book for my birthday at the end of March, on the same day that I opened my
biannual choccy treat. Like the chocolate I was able to dip into this book every now and then, swill the flavour around in my mouth and delight in the taste.

In 645 pages Reynolds attempts to provide an overview of American history from prehistoric times to November 2008. Of course there are gaps and the weight is clearly post 17th century liberal. But it's still a lovely thing to hold and behold. It was originally a BBC radio 4 series broadcast last year, 15 minute shows focussing on a different element of the American story. As a result of this format it's an ideal read for the moderately informed (or, like me, well informed in parts but clueless in others) This book has proved to be a real comfort of late, chapters and sections manageable enough to sit with for half an hour here or there, in the garden, on the loo, late at night in bed. Not only has the content been interesting and enjoyable but the style has made it a pleasure to engage in the art of reading.

If all book could be such.

I give up!

No, not the blog although it's been slow for a while here at Mondale Towers (I blame the depression) just the idea that the living room should double up as a library.

It's a big step but I have accepted the fact that we will perhaps be looking for a larger space soon and that the books should be stored in the loft until we move (could be years mind).

The boxes have been ordered and should arrive later this week.

Book Learning 51: Fatherland by Robert Harris

Fatherland by Robert Harris

I wanted to like this so much more.
This was a book that suffered greatly from the fact that my peak reading hours are the twilight snoozy sessions shortly before my tired head hits the pillow.
Not a dreadful read, just, well, predictable.
Maybe it's 'thrillers'?
Maybe it's me?

I need some serious suggestions.

Book Learning 50: Books that shook the World: The Qur'an by Bruce Lawrence.

Books that shook the World: The Qur'an by Bruce Lawrence.

The Qur'an was not written by Bruce Lawrence. It is the direct word of God as told to Muhammad (pbh).
I would not wish to confuse anybody.
This was not The Qur'an. This was a series of essays outlining different historical and political interpretations of The Qur'an.
And a good read it was too.
I rather wish I had actually read The Qur'an in order to have understood this a bit more.
As it is, I shall just value the enjoyment and curiosity I took away from this work.

Book Learning 49:Pies and Prejudice. In search of the North by Stuart Maconie

Pies and Prejudice. In search of the North by Stuart Maconie

I'm a professional Southerner.

I found this book lovely.

Lovely in that lovely, patronising way that Southerners have towards the North.
The sleeve makes a thing about Maconie becoming a National treasure, Its true, he's getting there. On the radio, the telly, in books, he's around a lot.

This book is a personal tour of the North, it's food, culture, sport and industry. It's also got a chunk of history and a bit of almost chip on shoulder northern working class stuff.

There were times in this book when I agreed with every word the man wrote, times when I laughed out loud and times when I reminisced fondly about family holidays to Yorkshire and Northumberland.

I almost got a bit bored at the end with the Brysonesque ramblings about Durham and Chester but I stuck it out.

Lovely, funny, insightful, a cracking read.

Book Learning 48:To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I'm not a rereader of books. I tend to move on and move out, never go back.
I first read this book at highschool about twenty years ago.
I enjoyed it back then, along with the other English Lit books I studied for GCSE.

I picked this up the other day, it was lying about, it's one of Frau Random Doubt's favourites.

I could not put this book down.
It made me long for a lengthy bus ride or train journey. I would find a reason to sneak off to the loo and sit for twenty minutes.

I can't tell you anything you don't already know, I just loved it. And perhaps even better than just loving it, I loved that I loved it.

Thank you Harper Lee for writing this book.

Book Learning 47: The boy in the striped pyjamas by John Boyne

The boy in the striped pyjamas by John Boyne

This is exactly the type of book the 11 year old Mondale loved to read.

The 35 year old Mondale also loved it.

It was recommended to me about a year ago by the very last person (a professional associate) that I would have thought would even recommend books let alone anything worthwhile. Still, she is an important figure in my career so I graciously took her copy and it lived in my briefcase for a number of months. She then asked for it back, and was a bit put out that I had 'not got round to it yet but it's by my bed and I'll read it soon'. After returning it I heard a beguiling radio story about the movie that has been made, it didn't give anything away but made me reach for the copy in the school library. Did I read it differently because I'm now a parent? Was my sorrow greater? Was my fear real?

Whatever the answers to such questions this much I know.

I couldn't put it down.

I had to know what happened next.

I was captivated.

Such innocence.

Such darkness.

Book Learning 46: The life and times of the thunderbolt kid by Bill Bryson.

The life and times of the thunderbolt kid by Bill Bryson.

Can I just cut and paste every other review I've done on a Bill Bryson book?
why do I keep picking him up?
It's like the Sunday newspaper magazine article about the new Bond film.
You sit on the loo , you read and your life is not changed. It's not harmful but it's not enlightening.
It passed the time.

Having said all that I liked the stuff about the big fifties themes, communism, racism, consumerism etc.

Book Learning 45:The Damned United by David Peace

The Damned United by David Peace

Brian Clough was one of the most outrageous managers in an era of outrageous managers. This is a novel based upon an outrageous episode in his career.

He had won the league with Derby and would go on to win the league and two European Cups with Forest.
In 1974 he took charge at Leeds United, a club he had done nothing but criticise for the previous decade.
His managerial role at Leeds United lasted 44 days.

This novel explores the mind of Mr Clough during those booze fuelled, paranoid 44 days.

I loved the story but didn't appreciate the author's style, stream of conciousness, flashbacks to his Derby career, emotional tangles and the contradictions of a soul in turmoil. At times I felt that I didn't really need yet another drunken night in a midlands hotel, but another drunken night in a midlands hotel was what I got.

I battled through it, mostly enjoying it, wondering about the point of it all.

Did Mr Clough set out to destroy Leeds United from the inside?

Why on earth had Leeds hired Mr Clough in the first place?

Was he really that manic? That obnoxious? That drunk?

The answers to the last three?

Probably yes.

Book Learning 44: Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

I like Shakespeare as much as the next man ( as long as the next man quite likes most of the stuff he's seen and is comfortable to call the crap as he sees it, was taught some at high school and was taken to some of the bloodier plays as a teenager by his dad who decided that the way to culture for his kids was some militaristic glorification of a deviously interpreted past) and I also quite like local eminence Bill Bryson.

This was a quick read and just the tonic after some months of literary ennui.
The premise being that there's a lot we think we know about Shakey but an awful lot more that's myth or just plain old false.

Now I just have to wait a bit for my mum to finish her amazing looking bio of one of history's greatest characters so that I can get into that. I also need to avoid mum for a week or two as she delights in reading snippets from the aforementioned book.

Book Learning 43:Bush at War by Bob Woodward.

Bush at War by Bob Woodward.

Sometimes I wonder, I really do. Sometimes I wonder why I persist in selecting books about US Presidents, their high jinks, their fiascos and their occasional successes when out there, on some sturdy wooden bookshelf , there must be just the book for me. A book that would enlighten and amuse, and perhaps even educate.

An indicator of how seriously i took this book was the fact that I kept playing with the author's name. Recalling that favourite childhood joke "What do you call Edward Woodward without any 'r's? Answer- EwarWoowar" I kept thinking of 'Bob Woowar' and smiling gently to myself as I shuffled about.

The content is noble but by now it's all common knowledge. Lots of meetings, Rumsfeld gets annoyed, Bush becomes strong and slightly mean then tears up when meeting survivors of the terror attacks, Cheney goes and spends some time in a secret, everything proof bunker, Rice is concerned, Powell is perplexed and doubtful. Repeat to fade. Everything you've read in the NYtimes or heard on NPR in the last 7 years.

Book Learning 42: The Prime Minister, the office and it's holders since 1945. Peter Hennessey.

The Prime Minister, the office and it's holders since 1945.
Peter Hennessey.

Hennessey is a great contemporary historian.

I first read this a few years ago, I picked it up again for two reasons. I was bored and I'd loved it the first time. I was hoping to find some insight into leadership that might help with my current professional ennui.

I loved it all over again, most of all Clement Atlee, then Harold Macmillan, then James Callaghan.

Did I learn anything?
Have I used that learning?
Perhaps but maybe not yet.

Did I enjoy re-reading the moments of power and struggle of the the last 65 years?

Do I look like a political geek?

Book Learning 41: Never Again. Britain 1945-51 by Peter Hennessy.

Never Again. Britain 1945-51 by Peter Hennessy.

Ah, the gentle aroma of Clement Atlee's pipe permeates every page of this engaging history of the immediate postwar period.
The account of Britain's struggle for survival , economic, diplomatic and imperial makes you realise how close the country came to collapse during those years and puts a perspective on the Labour landslide election of 1945 (such a victory but such a massive job to do!)
It's jammed with details and anecdotes about the problems and solutions of the period and it should be pointed out that the Sterling crisis left me cold (despite placing the current credit crunch in perspective- there were no homes to mortgage in 1945, thanks to the Luftwaffe!)
I loved the stuff about India, it would have bankrupted Britain to keep it on and the job was to persuade the still Imperial minded public that India should gain independence without letting it slip the real reasons why. Indeed, the book is full of the arguments, economic and political about the deeds of the Atlee government.
The attempts to join a fledgling European Economic grouping which was stymied by the French and Germans who didn't want the Brits involved, spoiling their ideas.
The situation over the first West Indian immigrants aboard the SS Empire Windrush "Don't worry, they'll never last the English winter" said one Cabinet minister!
The first scirmishes of a new Cold War, negotiations with America over the reconstruction of Europe. You get the impression alot of the freeflowing goodwill of WW2 was due to the bonhomie of the Roosevelt-Churchill friendship, there's a great bit when Truman gets his hands on the chequebook and the money dries up almost on the spot causing the British to hastily renegotiate a series of loans at decidely unlendleasy rates!
And of course, the National Health Service.
Nye Bevan's proudest achievement, the jewel in the crown and still standing today. The marvel is that amidst the finacial carnage of the late 1940s that it happened at all! Oh I could go on, really I could. The Beveridge report, George Orwell, The BBC, improved schools for all. Just thinking about what the Atlee government did in those years makes my brain ache and my heart grateful.
There was also a very good analysis of the 1950 election and the strategies employed by the parties in the pre television age.

Book Learning:Crisis point

It's time for a novel.
Something light and funny.
Let me tell you why.

I began this book last February. That's right, 2007. I got halfway through, was enjoying it, in the way that one does enjoy an examination of perspectives on mental illness and nineteenth century cultural values. Then I left it on a train (Arrgh!! The eternal romance of leaving books on trains!) So I purchased another copy which I then left at my parents house (I was still living in New York at that time). During the summer I picked it up again and was delighted to discover that I had completely lost my train of thought. It's still by my bed. I really should pass it on. But to who?

Crumbs! This one almost took off. I absolutely loved Roy Jenkins's biography of Winston Churchill and have always been interested by W.E.Gladstone. You'd think this would be easy. Right?


Gladstone used to disappear from London for months at a time. He led an astonishingly slow paced life and he wrote excrutiating letters to people who I care little about. I tried to see the bigger picture and was desperate to get to the juicy bits about Ireland and Disraeli. But not desperate enough to wade through page after worthy page about economic conditions in 1859 or his unease about the different strains of nonconformist thinking at Oxford University. A good read for some, but alas, not for me.

I still love Lyndon. I can't understand why anyone wouldn't. But this book was just too heavy.

No, I mean it weighs a great deal. I am not able to read this at night, in bed, as it hurts me.
I was given the hardcover edition as a birthday gift a few years ago. A couple of years later, Listmaker gave me a paperback edition.

I really, really wish I had kept that paperback edition.

One of the big things I miss about New York is the ammount of reading that takes place on public transport. Listmaker always used to say that he got some of his best reading done on the subway. Damn right. Until I fix my ridiculous commute I'm not able to read half as much as I used to. I would have almost certainly got on with any of these great books had I been able to hop on the Q to Union Square a couple of times a week.

It's not all doom and gloom. I've just stolen something interesting from the shelf at my parents house. It's quite thin and looks like it could be fun. We shall see.

Book Learning 40:The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall.

The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall.

I first read this book just before the BBC adaptation in the early/mid 1980's. It stood out as one of the most enjoyable books of my childhood and one of the first books beyond the Roald Dahl/Michael Rosen obsessed pre teen years of reading (I was a few years away from presidential biographies at this point).

I just read it to my class. It's a very English book, set on the blitzed out home front of World War two, full of coppers and milk bottles, jerries and shrapnel and the school culture and rough and tumble of the 1940's. I knew that my American kids were too young and too, well, not English enough to understand or enjoy this book. I was delighted to be able to read it to an appreciative audience.

OK, I was happy to read it to my class. They really weren't that appreciative. I think sometimes they just put up with my choices. I think most of them enjoyed it but when we discussed it after reading there were some very honest opinions expressed. It's certainly more of a boy's book and there aren't a huge ammount of laughs. It is about a boy who wrenches a machine gun off a crashed German bomber and gets into all sorts of scrapes with his friends, a German pilot and a simple fella who collects milk bottles and says "where you going now?".

On the other hand, as an adult reading a very well written and highly acclaimed children's classic, there are many plusses to this book that my class may have missed. The interpretation of the Home Front seems more believable than many other books, the angst of family life was great, the shit scared descriptions of air raids, the fumbling German airman hiding from the authorities who stumbles into the gang of kids, all great stuff.

Worth a look.

book Learning 39: The Progressive Patriot. A search for belonging by Billy Bragg.

The Progressive Patriot. A search for belonging by Billy Bragg.

Ever since I picked up the 12 inch single "Greetings to the new brunette" in January 1987 I have been wedded to Billy Bragg.
It's been a pretty good marriage, there have been times when all I needed was to listen to 'Worker's playtime' or 'Talking to the taxman about poetry' and all was well. I had Uncle Bill, those strange teenage years were bearable.

Then came 'Sexuality' and all that success.

Then came some truly lean years.

I kept the faith and I kept going to gigs, I just lived in a different place, a different time.
I think that at one gig Uncle Bill talked a lot about his wife and son and how hard it is to get a babysitter and I felt pretty much marginalised. Added to which I thought that the album he was promoting was crap. I have always loved his hostile attitude to nostalgia but dammit, if there's one man who can make me feel nostalgic for so many things it's Billy Bragg 1983-1988!

However, I saw him a couple of years ago in New York and loved every minute of it, my estranged Uncle Bill had come home. OK, he'd not really come home,it was more like he was attending a family function on good behaviour, but still, here he was, just as chatty as ever and playing all his old classics in a gorgeous venue.

So, I read his book.

In the midst of a self imposed enquiry about Englishness and what it means, a self imposed thought fest about returning to England, I picked up this book and began to read.

Bragg tackles a most complex issue, a complex issue for any nation, the idea of national identity and awareness.


It's not all that intense, it flows in the way that an Uncle Billy mid gig chat flows, he fills it with family history (he is an incredible and quite fascinating geek) and a left centred view on English domestic history. He quotes heavyweights such as George Orwell and Sir Winston Churchill as well as lighter notes Sir John Major and Lord Tebbit. Billy takes you on a ride and it's a great conversation, I love the fact that he apologises several times for being a Londoner who now lives by the sea in devon!

All this made me realise that you could read a book a day on Englishness (Billy makes the distinction that this bok is about being English, not British) and still not get halfway close to an understanding. It also made me realise that whilst I don't rate much of Billy's recent musical output, he's not a half bad writer (always was a superb lyrical poet) and his books certainly hold the reader and keep the interest. yes, it's a geeky read full of semi obscure English history and the need for a formal, written constitution, but it's also dead entertaining.

Book Learning 38: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.

I did enjoy this book. I did.

I just felt that I would have enjoyed it much more five years ago.

It was one of the books on my parent's shelves, a book amongst many that I had wanted to read for a few years. Each time he appeared on TV doing his food/travel thing I thought to myself "Oh, I should read his book, the one about not eating fish on a Monday" . But I never did.
And I enjoyed it. I mean, I thoroughly enjoyed the first half , the early years, the crazy shit. Then he became more proficient, more clean and tidy, and slightly dull. I fell away towards then end. There are only so many well run and successful restaurant kitchens I can be bothered to read about.


This may sound a bit odd so please bear with me.

It's actually great to be living fairly close to my parents. They adore the wee hen and he gurgles and chuckles right back at them. It's one of the reasons we moved back, so that they could know him as he grows up.

There is a side effect.

It's a benefical one.

The bookshelves at B****s Towers are loaded.

They are loaded with all those books that you thought you should have read, all those books that you might have read, all those books that you sort of thought you should have read or might have read and a few in between. Don't even get me started on The Silver Fox's study which is crammed with sporting volumes from over five decades, everything from how to tune your racing dinghy to photostudies of the 1966 World Cup Finals. In the next room and downstairs there are all the great classics (Austen, Bronte, Dickens, Tolstoy etc) as well as lots and lots of more modern fiction and biography. It's a wonderfully random selection and from time to time it's a place where a passion for books can be indulged, especially as I am currently banned from bookshops (it's a single income thing, we need to tighten our belts a bit and my book habit was costly).

Book Learning 37:In Churchill's shadow by David Cannadine.

In Churchill's shadow by David Cannadine.

This was a delight of a book. A delight made no less by the fact that it was a thoughful gift from a friend but also because it was a really good take on a very well worn historical path. What was Winston Churchill's relationship with Britain? What's the relevance of his achievements?
Cannadine doesn't particularly delve into the great man's life and works and a casual fan of the V sign and cigar may become disorienated and confused, no rambling speeches here, no ash dust from the Blitz and evocations of the supernatural English spirit. No, Cannadine selects a series of contempories of Churchill and assesses their impact upon British life and in a mild way, their relationship with Churchill. From Stanley Baldwin, to Ian Fleming and many in between , including Noel Coward, Neville Chamberlain and The National Trust.

I read this book over the course of five months having misplaced it during our move to the UK. I was delighted to pull it from the carnage of our move and finish it off last week.

In true Churchill style I wrote this review whilst nursing a bottle of 2006 Malbec (Come on, it's half term)

book Learning 36: A bit of a blur by Alex James.

A bit of a blur by Alex James.

I think I read this in August. I've been so busy/tired lately and have completely fallen off my 'one book at a time' monogomy trip.
As far as I recall this was a fun read full of tales of rock n' roll hedonism and then redemption in the arms of a true love and an organic farm. hey everybody needs a dream right?

Yeah, light and engaging with lots of sex, drugs and booze.

book Learning 35:The Cold War. A new history by John Lewis Gaddis.

The Cold War. A new history by John Lewis Gaddis.

A zippingly concise little history of the Cold War. Written for students in college who were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the rest of us a swift journey through the old post war world.

I loved the concise nature of it, learned more about the role and impact of the Middle East and the nature of Soviet politics.
A good intelligent summer read.
A few of the things that stood out.

Nikita Krushchev was obsessed with American culture and kept trying to have summits in the USA.

Jimmy Carter increased the ammount of nuclear weapons.

Ronald Reagan decreased the ammount of nuclear weapons.

The first George Bush was really pretty pointless

Book Learning 34:Warriors. Portraits from the battlefield By Max Hastings.

Warriors. Portraits from the battlefield By Max Hastings.
I was unable to find a picture of the title to my liking so I've included a picture of a younger Mr Hastings, probably from his Falklands War "I counted them all out and I counted them all in" days. Except that that quote belongs to TV journalist Brian Hanrahan.
I was browsing the Community Bookstore on 7th Avenue looking for a suitable birthday gift for Neice Flighty-Bat (books are so easy to mail and encourage intellectual stimulation in the tween generation). Of course I ended up with nothing for the neice but found this slight gem for myself.

And a slight gem it was. A dozen or more vignettes concerning different warriors from a range of conflicts over the last two hundred years. The brave, the stubborn, the foolish and the lucky. Oh, the dead also feature.

The compact chapter style suits my life right now, will probably suit my life for the next twenty years. It seems that Hastings is one of those authors I return to every couple of years, just when I thought I wouldn't read a military history.

On a selfish note it's also heartening to see that though my pace has slowed my enjoyment of reading has not diminished.
Now I just need to get my running shoes back on.

Book Learning 33:Perfect from Now on. By John Sellers.

Perfect from Now on. By John Sellers.

It's strange that I was waiting for a book to rescue me from the perma-fatigue of new dadness/reading deprivation. I knew that such a book would not be found by browsing a bookstore or Amazon. This one came to me via my indie obsessed boss, dropped on my desk one day while I was out watching the kids at yard.

I'm still not sure I enjoyed this. I mean, I read it through and found parts of it fascinating, parts of it highly amusing and parts of it intensely annoying.
Sellers has a habit of completely overdoing footnotes. Half the book is footnotes and it derails your rhythm, at least it derailed mine. Having said that, many of the footnotes were great, amusing and interesting. The whole Joy Division/Ian Curtis footnote (which ran to something like 10 pages)woulda,coulda,shoulda been a chapter in it's own right (as promised by the author earlier in the book).

I understood his outlook, the pop kid who becomes an indie kid as those mildly tortuous teenage/college years progress. I guess I had the benefit of an older brother who was able to drag me to gigs, as well as said gigs being played in the safe(ish) environment of the local University. This put my Indie experiences at an earlier age than Sellers. Also, my brother was pretty hardcore in his tastes when I was 14, If he wanted to go and see That Petrol Emotionthen I went too. The best kind of babysitting. If I recall correctly Sellers didn't go to his first indie gig until he was 18?

And he writes about falling out of love with U2 after the album 'The Joshua tree'. By my indie reckoning U2 were never anything indie whatsoever. It's by virtue of timing but by the time I was going to gigs U2 were already pretty global super rock. Even their better albums (achtung baby?) were enjoyed but enjoyed on the understanding that they were never going to be anything other than stadium fillers.

Then there is Guided by Voices.

It has been pointed out to me that I should have heard GBV. But I havent, not until this morning.
So I'm not obsessed with them. John Sellers clearly is. That's great, he should write a book about them. Oh, look, he did already.
The second half of this book is almost entirely devoted to GBV. Which, as I have said is fine. It's just that his devotion to this band then overruns all other consideration of the rest of indie music and the rest of the book is a homage to his #1 all time fave band. This would have mattered more to me if he'd written about one of my #1 all time fave bands rather than some blokes I'd not heard until 8.15 this morning.

Sure, it's an amusing read but I know that Nick Hornby did this better in High Fidelity.
In many respects this book got to me the way a heated conversation about music should get to you. Sellers has his taste and for the most part it's not mine, or at least what he has chosen to write about is not wholly compatible with my ideas about indie music. I like the fact that he provoked me to listen to some old stuff, ask friends to borrow some new stuff and, in short gave me a bit of a kick up the arse.

But no mention of The Wedding Present?

book Learning 32: The Likes of Us. A biography of the White Working class. By Michael Collins.

The Likes of Us. A biography of the White Working class. By Michael Collins.

I picked this off my mum's shelves during my recent trip to Norfolk. I had been working through Lincoln's Melancholy by Joshua Shenk but had managed to leave it down the back of the sofa. I found this in my carry on during the flight home.
Collins begins with a reference to the racist murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993 and traces the cultural history of his own family's neighborhood in South (pron: Sarf) London back through the last two centuries. It wasn't a real gripper but did prove interesting in a number of ways. Also, living in New York, race is the big deal whereas in Britain it's still (i think) class, no matter how much some will try and deny it or pretend that it's gone the way of the empire and smoking in pubs.
Collins traces the story of his own family and how the social upheavals of the last 150 years affected them. It's an interesting approach but I would have preferred a bit more depth.

Book Learning: My Brother was right.

When Henry was born my brother Busydad told me that I'd not be doing very much reading from now on.
I bumped into a parent at the eye doctor's the other day who told me that she didn't read for two years after the birth of her kids. She told me that this had really upset her.
Since the boy arrived on the scene I've changed masses of diapers, been on some cool father and son strolls, fed him a few bottles, got scared by his crying once or twice but have actually read very little. Perhaps a page a week. Henry is now almost sleeping through the night and is a delightful baby, the truth is that I no longer need to read to get to sleep at the end of the day, I'm already exhausted. I did read a bit on the trip to Blighty last week, much of that was British newspapers which I adore but of course I went and left the book I was halfway through at my parent's house. By the time they send it over here I'll have lost the impetus.

I'm not yet too upset by this, I've been reading like a crazy dude on fire for the last three or four years, Maybe it's time to get my head out of a book, wait for the right one to come along. I've just taken the first of the Lord of the Rings trilogy out of the school library. I think it might take a while.

book Learning 31:Mr Nice. An Autobiography. By Howard Marks.

Mr Nice. An Autobiography. By Howard Marks.

Upon the birth of Henry I was advised by my brother to get into some good airport reading. He told me that I wouldn't get much time or energy for anything too taxing or too interesting. He was mostly right.
I'd seen my mum read this a few years ago, It was very much a must read for the New Lad brigade back in the UK in the Nineties.
Alright, I'll give it a try.
Marks can tell a good story and he's clearly an intelligent guy. The drawback occurs when it soon becomes obvious that it's variations on the same story over a number of years. I'm also such a book-slut that if the book doesn't hold me well enough me from start to finish I'm soon pondering my next read.
An entertaining read, I guess that's why so many stoners have managed to plough through it. A romantic read with a bunch of fascinating underworld characters getting into scrapes involving the smuggling of massive ammounts of marajuana and hash around the world.

And nobody really got hurt.


I wonder about that. This isn't the place for my views on drugs but Marks does a superb job on glossing over his criminal activities. For him it's a life's adventure in a foggy cloud of false passports and close calls with The Man.

By the end I was getting quite excited about his ineviatble 'bust'.
By the end it was rather like listening to that lovable yet repetitive stoner friend who cannot quite remember the punchline to the story they were telling you.

Book Learning30: The last king of Scotland by Giles Foden.

The last king of Scotland by Giles Foden.

I should read more novels, I really should. Whenever I read a novel I very often do enjoy it so. I am , however almost always drawn to other types and find little time for such fictional relish.

This book took me slowly and held me close.

The story of a Dr Garrigan, his experiences in Uganda in the 1970s, his descent into madness and subsequent recovery.
I loved the soul searching (a little reminiscent of Albert Speer's good Nazi themes) Garrigan is a doctor, surely he is there to save life? How can he help Idi Amin and still be a conscienable human being let along a healer?

I am searching for a couple of light hearted reads for the coming weeks. watch this space.

Book Learning29:Rats. Observations on the history and habitat of the city's most unwanted inhabitants. By Robert Sullivan.

Rats. Observations on the history and habitat of the city's most unwanted inhabitants. By Robert Sullivan.

A fascinating read. Not just the rats themsleves but an unsavory history of the city we live in, of how rats affect our daily lives and how we affect theirs. Sullivan goes in for some cool history of the sanitation dept and living conditions on some of the tougher neighborhoods. He also hangs out with a lot of pest control folk. All good stuff.
My favourite bits were the comparisons of Brooklyn and Manhattan rats (Brooklyn ones are generally more chilled out) and the list of rat foods (they love mac n' cheese). Also some good myth busting- there are not as many rats as there are people.
All in all, not bad. I still hate the fuckers though.

Book Learning28:The Survivor. Bill Clinton in the White House. By John F.Harris.

The Survivor. Bill Clinton in the White House. By John F.Harris.

As I write this I am listening to Richard Nixon justify his actions.
There are few similarities between Nixon and Clinton. Self justification in the light of poor judgement and/or illegal behaviour is one of them.

That aside Harris has written an intelligent and highly readable account of the Clinton White House years. The chapters are alternated, some heavy discussion of policy such as Healthcare reform and deficit reduction and then the more engaging, personal stuff such as Clinton's relationships with his wife or senior members of his administration.

Some thoughts...

It's easy to forget how strange the first term was, the shutdown, healthcare fiasco, poor approval ratings and doubt about America's foreign policy.

When I began to read this book I had no real opinion on the junior Senator for New York, at the beginning I was discourteous in my heart towards the former First Lady. By the end of the book I was feeling much more benign, almost willing her to run and win in 2008.

I'm still unsure about Al Gore. Like many I suppose.

Wouldn't it be fun to hang out with Bill Clinton?

So much he didn't get done.

As I read this book I couldn't help but wonder, 1998, budget surplus, a less confusing world and a competent President in the White House. It changed so quickly and so irrevocably.

book Learning:The LIST.


I'm trying to compile a list of the very best of Book learning 2006.
Out of 27 books read so far I only have 4 that I would recommend as being superb f*cking reads.

One of them involves rabbits.

I just find it interesting.

Book Learning 27:On Royalty By Jeremy Paxman.

On Royalty By Jeremy Paxman.

Americans may feel free to disregard this post.

Oh Blimey.

There's nothing like a superbly written analysis of the monarchy to make you rethink most of your comfortably held beliefs about the hereditary principle, democracy, representative government, The Duke of Edinburgh and that Royal Wedding party your mum made you go to in 1981.

I am confused.

I am a republican.

Arent I?

Monarchy, in the modern world is at best a hangover from a feudal age, at worst a joke in poor taste. The hereditary principle, when taken beyond haircolour and the size of your feet is an outdated concept.

Eveyone agrees on that.

So why do we still have one?

Paxman come up with a wealth of great arguments, both for and against the idea and practise of Monarchy. He also regales us with some insider gossip about hanging out with The Prince of Wales, The late Princess of Wales and (most amusingly) the Duke of Edinburgh. He delves back to examine what happens when you finish a royal family or kill a king (I learned a hell of a lot about the trial and execution of Charles I).
This book is a serious piece of journalism tackling a subject often left to the gossip mongers and tabloid editors.

But it's also a book that makes you think about something you've probably not thought about for ages, something you've left in the back of your head;
Monarchy= stupid, crap and wrong.
Now I'm less than sure. Do I care enough to get rid of them?
Would I prefer an elected president, some wanker like Richard Branson?
Would you want another layer of electoral politics, either for a meaningless figurehead or for a powerful president?
Do the British need a monarch to portray them in the wider world? Surely we are more mature as a nation. Or are we?

Surely there are more important things to worry about.

Book Learning 26:Letters to a young politician by Alistair MacAlpine.

Letters to a young politician by Alistair MacAlpine.

I had wanted something that would have illuminated the shadowy world of the Tory MP, I ended up with a flighty, sub Wodehouse ramble through drunkeness and intruige. It was fair enough but it just reminded me why we should never trust our elected officals and why Tories are almost always complete wankers.

Book learning 25:Don’t get too comfortable by David Rakoff.

Don’t get too comfortable by David Rakoff.

I saw him as a guest on The Daily Show last week.
He was talking about the log cabin Republicans and was rather amusing.

I thought that this would be a hilarious read.

Ridiculously, in between books hilarious.

It wasn’t.

It was well written and amusing. Perhaps more interesting than amusing. In fact, for the most part it held my attention and inspired thought. This was no rollicking Sedaris style yarn telling, This was funny in parts but more often educational in others, lots others.

The bit about Log Cabin Republicans was funny and pathetically, horribly sad.

The bit about citizenship and identity in the post 9/11 world was funny and fascinating and scary and wierd.
The bit about everybody in the world being equal to a piece of literature , some of us The Guttenburg Bible, some of us those little pink notes that say ‘while you were out’. That was funny.

But I wanted hilarious.

Book learning 24:Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin.

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin.

This is one for the Orwellistas out there.

I say that because Ms Larkin litters quite a few indiscreet spoilers in this rather engaging book. If you are planning on reading any of Orwell's books in the near future and you don't wish to know the endings/broad themes of such works as Animal Farm, 1984, Burmese Days, Keep the Aspidistra flying, The Clergyman's daughter then come back to this book when you are done with the originals. Of course, If you have no intention of working through Orwell's books then you can read this without a hitch, that's what the spoilers are for.

Having said all of that this is an enjoyable accompaniment to the library of any Orwell fan. Larkin uses a trilogy of books by Orwell as a backdrop to recent Burmese history. Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984. The first represents the British colonial times, the second the establishment of socialism in Burma after WW2 and the third the totalitarian 'thought state' that exists today.

By a series of discreet encounters with Burmese dissidents and thinkers she traces Burmese history along with Orwell's experiences as a British policeman in the 1920s.
She attempts to find some of the locations that Orwell would have known and some of the settings for the novel Burmese days. She also picks away at modern Burma, both as a political entity and a tourist destination.

All the time she is attempting to evade the long arm of the Military who run Burma. They seem to be everywhere, suspicious of all foreigners as well as almost all Burmese. She also aims to find references to Orwell's Burmese experiences in his other books. I'm not so sure she succeeds with the last point but she does achieve a fine read and a glimpse into one of the world's darkest corners.

Book learning 23:Burmese Days by George Orwell.

Burmese Days by George Orwell.

If it's fall I must be reading Orwell. There is just something so reassuring about my favourite author, something so, fall. I think it may have been September 1988 when my high school english teacher made us read '1984'. From that point on I was hooked, never more than 12 months away from another considered reading of his work. He is also one of the very few (count 1, maybe 2?) authors that I actually reread.
I should confess to having had some conflicts with the great man. Back in the 1990's when I was at the height of my fanatical Norfolk nationalism I was distrustful. I knew that under laws being thought up at that time, George Orwell would be listed as 'politically unreliable' for the crime of having lived in Suffolk* (a 'crime' we could today charge many of the great and good including our own dear Weasel and Delia Smith).

Such days and thoughts are now past us and in some way this could be said of Orwell.
Surely, the themes he writes about are dated and historically , politically irrelevant. The British Empire, International Communism, Come on, that stuff is all done and dusted.

The beauty of Orwell is that his themes remain relevant to the present as well as providing a look at the past. Colonialism, imperialism, call it what you will, it's still here. Even, to some extent the clash of ideologies. If we had managed to get beyond such concepts I suppose Orwell's words would sound dated, but he is shrewd with his words and fortunate with his timing.

In 'Burmese Days' Orwell paints a stinking, pitiful portrait of British Colonial rule. There cannot be one sympathetic character amongst the cast. Everyone, for some reason or another is simply struggling to survive, to make good in a sweltering situation, most through drinking at the club, some by questioning the purpose of Empire, some by hunting and riding horses. The book fares pretty well with small anecdotes and descriptions of characters for the first 200 pages and then things spice up, things happen.

I read the last 75 pages in a swirl of page turning frenzy. The action was tense and the ending tragic. No sympathetic characters, no sympathy for the characters.

* Orwell lived in Southwold during the 1920s and 30s, an area claimed by Norfolk because it's pretty.

Book learning 22:The Fall of Rome by Martha Southgate.

The Fall of Rome by Martha Southgate.

I had to read this for a shool bookclub.
I don't mind bookclubs just as long as there's plenty of booze and you don't actually have to have read the book. I prefer movie nights, you can watch the movie and then discuss.
I really don't like being told by the 'man' what to read.

Having said that I picked this up, read it in a weekend involving two lengthy train rides and quite enjoyed it. It wasn't great but I got through it. I felt good about committing to something that would prepare me for the start of school. I was almost hoping that the Director would try and trip me up with questions but he didn't.

When our group met for discussion noone really mentioned the book at all. I had to reference it so that the rest of the room would know that I had even bothered to read it.

Book learning 21:'The Fall of Berlin 1945' by Anthony Beevor.

'The Fall of Berlin 1945' by Anthony Beevor.

Phew, Maybe it was the intensive ammount of reading I undertook this summer or perhaps the deeply disturbing content but this one took a while.
I found parts hardgoing, "Company X moved 12 km to the west, outflanking the remnants of Waffen SS division 'Unabrow' and thus dividing the leftovers of Wehrmacht companies J, Q, Z, 1, 2, and 3 to surrender to the massed ranks of Red Army divisions 34, 56, 765 and the elite 'Stalinfire' brigade.

That and the immensly harrowing tales of rape and revenge killings.
Still, it was very well researched and written and I pretty well enjoyed it.

Book learning 20:In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson.

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson.

I’ve always liked Bill Bryson; I’ve read most of his books over the last 15 years and have found them fascinating troves of information and amusing anecdote.
I would have enjoyed this so very much more had I not been hit in the middle with a ferocious bout of mid vacation vomiting, diarrhea and fever (Michigan’s revenge). Now the book is synonymous with trying to catch both ends of similtaneous bodily discharge.

I also think I prefer it when Bryson writes about people and places rather than plants or animals. The fact that half this book is about flora and fauna took some of the shine off.
That and the liquid poo.

Book learning 19:10 days that shook the world by John Reed.

10 days that shook the world by John Reed.

Almost literally, a blow by blow account of the Soviet revolution of November 1917, This was recommended to me by the father of a college roommate, way back in the day. We were at a Bristol City game and began to numb the agony by plotting revolution. Ringers’ father told me to read this, one of the greatest acts of journalism of the twentieth century. Him being a journalist and the man who had gotten me into the game for free I vowed to take him up on his advice.
The problem was finding a copy. In the 10 years that followed, I would, from time to time make attempts to seek out the book, still feeling it to be part of an unfinished literary quest, a hangover from a freezing night at Ashton Gate. Many times it slipped from my consciousness only to pop up whilst flipping through channels and seeing red guards ‘storming’ the winter palace or catching a snippet of ‘Dr Zchivago’. I tried Amazon and a variety of other online sources but it was always reported back as out of print or for sale by some weird dealer in South Dakota. As you can only imagine, delight was unbounded when browsing through the Barnes & Noble on 7th ave in Park Slope I found a copy right there. Sitting on the shelf.

Reed was an American journalist, sympathetic to the cause of the Bolsheviks and the Soviets. He recorded events in Petrograd (mostly) and partly in Moscow. Such events as he encounters are recorded in extraordinary detail and a fine tuned journalistic ear. He admits in his preface that the first two or three chapters are rather hard going, a chronology and list of terms used and organizations, and golly, what a lot of organizations. Much of the book reads like a scene from Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” “We, the Judean People’s liberation front reject the proposal etc etc”.
The book covers multiple debates, arguments and even a few gunfights between any of the myriad of different groups aiming for ultimate power in the broken Russia of November 1917.

It’s an amazing read; not least because of some of the insane detail he regales us with,
Trotsky attempting to enter the Smolny Institute without the correct pass “I had it a moment ago” claims the visionary behind international socialist revolution. “That’s what they all say” replies the Red Guard who’s having none of it.
The difficulty getting a taxi driver to take you to the scene of the action “I’m not going there, people are shooting” and where to get a good vegetarian meal in revolutionary Petrograd (a restaurant called ‘I eat nobody’).

I began reading this whilst sunbathing on a yacht, hardly the place to be thinking about the struggles of the proletariat, I ended it on the shores of Lake Michigan which, whilst no winter in Petrograd had a slightly more egalitarian feel to it.
I really wanted to revive the struggle, to establish the People’s Socialist Republic of East Anglia, to throw off the capitalist , Imperialist English yoke, to smash their guns and create a society of equals, based upon a few simple truths and a deadly sinister secret police force with cool leather uniforms.
This book also takes you to another place, another time; an amazing sense of optimism permeates the text. A fine read.

Book learning 18:The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency by James Naughtie.

The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency by James Naughtie.

Naughtie is the aggressive host of Radio 4's 'Today' show where he harrasses politicians at a time too early in the morning for anyone to make a lot of sense.

I'd read his earlier book on Blair 'The Rivals' which outlined his relationships and dealing during his rise to power. This book looks at his relationships and dealings as Prime Minister, with his own parliamentary party, his cabinet and most of all with President Bush.

Naughtie is a heavyweight journalist dealing with a heavyweight topic (the case for war in Iraq and the dealings between London and Washington) so it's not always a light read, in fact if it wasnt all such open currency the stuff in this book would scare the crap out of most poeple reading it, except perhaps Paul Wolfovitz and Donald Rumsfeld.

A number of excellent chapters highlighted the following themes, making it well worth the read.
Religion in the UK and US and the comparitive roles in policy making at the highest levels.

The role of secret intelligence services, and why they should really remain secret.

The nature of the 'Special relationship' since WW2.

Weasel will love it, it's in the mail!

Book learning 17:The Natural, The misunderstood presidency of Bill Clinton. By Joe Klein.

The Natural, The misunderstood presidency of Bill Clinton. By Joe Klein.

A quick read, this one went down faster than a Diet Coke at a Clinton policy meeting (KApoom!!)
Klein whizzes through the 1992 campaign and thereafter in 219 pages, he casts a look at all the scandals and missed opportunites and examines the wierd relationships within the Clinton White House from Bill and Hillary down.

There's not really anything new in this book but it serves as a timely read when Clinton is so readily described as the greatest ever President ever. That's a fairly easy claim to make in light of the last three years. He makes the point that Clinton was the greatest politician of his generation (except perhaps Tony Blair) but look at his generation, Newt Gingrich, Al Gore, Tom Daschle, ummm.
You read on, realising that revionism about Clinton is all too easy and there are many facts that get in the way of hailing him as the new Messiah. You also understand that he was an exceptionally bright man, charming to an absolute fault and he had a West Wing full of good ideas. He also failed to achieve much of what he set out to do. That's politics.

A compact read for the political Junkie.

Book learning 16:'Don't let's go to the dogs tonight' by Alexandra Fuller.

'Don't let's go to the dogs tonight' by Alexandra Fuller.

This is the memoir of a girl growing up in a bunch of African countries in the 1970s and 80s.
A number of themes come through.

Her parents are dirt poor farmers who move from farm to farm depending on circumstances (civil wars, independence and majority rule, economics).
Life in rural Africa is very tough and often unduly fatal.
Justice in rural Africa is often swift and brutal, (especially if you happen to be black).

Her family are well bred, slightly obsessed with the British class system and completely, stoically insane.
They are living remnants of the end of The Empire, who, despite their economic straits attempt to retain a superior lifestyle.
They drink a lot, sweat alot, send their girls to distant boarding schools, drive beaten up Land Rovers, watch out for terrorists and land mines and smoke profusely.

Throughout the book you become accustomed to their casual rascism, right wing perspective and exhaustingly rugged lives. It shook some of my ideas about Africa (A division of Mondale International are based in Capetown, SA where they lead a very 21st century, urban and urbane existence) and made me damned thankful for the comforts of my own little world.
Still, the love of Africa for all it's tremendous faults shines through. As does the adventure of childhood.
A good read.