Monday, 14 March 2016


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ST AGNES’ STAND [By Thomas Eidson 1995]. This is a Western, probably the best I have ever read. It is about a man who comes across a party of nuns and orphans in New Mexico, hiding in a canyon from a band of Apaches. The harsh heat and tension are almost tangible. It has an average of 4.5 stars on Amazon. Eidson wrote a follow-up called The Last Ride, that I haven’t read which was made into a film with Cate Blanchet and Tommy Lee Jones in 2003, called The Missing .

Unforgettable novel which I cannot recommend highly enough.

DAUGHTER OF REGALS [By Stephen Donaldson 1983]. Stephen Donaldson is an American writer of fantasy novels. Very popular once upon a time although I am not sure whether he still finds an audience; his major work is called Thomas Covenant Trilogy, the Illearth War which I think I read when I was a teenager. It’s all dungeons and dragons and princes, dwarfs, giants and so on. But this little collection of short stories is incredible. Daughter of Regals itself is tremendous; I didn’t see the twist, maybe I would now that I am older but back then I was completely blindsided. But it is Ser Visals Tale that is the outstanding story and trust me, it is outstanding. I have literally never forgotten it and never read anything like it since.

Average 4.5 stars on Amazon. Would have been five were it not for one bonzo who has given it three.

WILD CARD [Raymond Hawkey & Roger Bingham 1976]. Mary Campbell gave me this when I was in the Hospital for Tropical Deseases for four months; I read it about five times. I read it again a couple of years ago and yes, it has dated a bit . . . a lot . . . but the central idea remains utterly gripping. Which is: American scientists retreat to a secret facility to create an Alien Invasion that cannot be traced anywhere to anyone.

In 1976 the world was in as much turmoil as it had been since the 2nd World War; rather like now and the zeitgeist of Wild Card was that we would all come together in peace if we thought our civilisation was in mortal peril. Maybe a tsunami; maybe an earthquake; maybe a collision with an asteroid; maybe a definite 100% sighting of an alien flying saucer, maybe little green men, maybe advanced and deadly weapons that we had no defence against. Maybe not, maybe just the explicit fact that extra-terrestrial- life existed, leaving no room for confusion or doubt would be enough.

But the theatre would have to be bombproof. In every possible way.

The writing is good enough, not great. The plot is the thing and it is unputdownable.

RICHARD ROGERS A BIOGRAPHY [By Brian Appleyard 1986]. I bought this new, this is a first-edition that I am looking at and it is excellent. I avoid biographies at all costs as a rule. Someone I know quite well is reading Robert A Caro’s biographies of LBJ which have only 5* reviews on Amazon but I don’t care. Just not interested in the lives of great men and great events.

Appleyard is still alive, still writing still agitating. He wrote this on his twitter account yesterday: Some day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned with a moron. From the ever-quotable H L Mencken.

I am moderately interested in Rogers; never met him; never did any work for him [not for lack of trying]. I thought some of his buildings were remarkable, some not. I loved the Fleetguard Factory at Quimper; Lloyds? Lloyds I could appreciate but couldn’t/didn’t love. He is definitely an artist and what Appleyard’s account does is get to why he is so great; he generates ideas. Constantly thinking of a better mousetrap.

It is easily one of the best books about art I have ever read, may be the very best insofar as it explains the unexplainable: that mercurial thing, sometimes capricious, sometimes impulsive that makes Van Gogh put a dab of blue there, just there and in Roger’s case, spins out as inspirational architecture. Fluid freeform Appleyard describes it as.

SHIPWRECK [By Charles Logan 1976]. I am going to run out of superlatives here; this has been in my all-time top ten books list for almost 40-years. Fantastic novel.

It’s about a rocket pilot in the future who is shipwrecked on an uninhabited planet; all his crew are dead so he is completely on his own with no chance of rescue.  The surface of the planet apart from the oceans, is covered entirely by a ribbon-like plant, his food, energy and water supplies are dangerously low. The beautifully written narrative is about his survival. I suppose it is a bit like The Martian, one man’s heroic efforts to survive. I quite liked The Martian, went on too long for me and I hated the ending [the bomb]which felt to me as though the author couldn’t really think how to end it end and came up with the bomb. Always wondered in fact if he intended to let the guy, the protagonist die at the end but some New Yawk editor told him to give it a happy ending and that was all he could come up with at short notice. Shipwreck is in a different league and no, it isn’t dated at all. It has straight 5* reviews on Amazon.

Quick rant. There is nothing, zilch in the back [or front for that matter] acknowledging his mum, his Agent, his editor, his proof reader, Jimmy, Jonny or Jenny. No-one told him to make it longer, develop this character, that character change this bit cut that bit there is no market for bleak survival stories. He wrote it and Gollancz published it and it is genius.

THE VISITATION [By Jenny Erpenbeck 2010]. Sometimes, sometimes you want something layered, deeper, that you have to pause and think about where you are expected to do some work, not have it all laid out in front of you. Jenny Erpenbeck is an East German writer. She sells well in her own country. Unknown here.

She had two books published previously, The Old Child and the Book of Words both of which I have read. I have read The Visitation twice although I suspect you could read it six times and find something new, each time. If you don’t already know, it is about the history of a country and its people filtered through the device of one house, by a lake. Anyway, here she is on page 115:

Only for the past week has his wife known she has a sister. One week ago the telephone rang. A friend from school whom the woman had neither seen nor spoken to in thirty or forty years. What a surprise, so you’re still, how did you, and who gave you, they’re talking about a reunion, no really, and so and so and that girl who, and what’s his name of the one who prematurely, oh so he’s already, how terribly sad, and did he, and how many children, work, husband, sailing, weekend property, does she actually have the address, and besides, what ever. Besides whatever became of your sister. What sister. And is your stepfather still alive. What stepfather. Oh, wait you still don’t know, this friend says now, all of this on the telephone, I mean your father wasn’t even, what the woman says, gazing out at the water, as she holds the receiver to her ear, the sailboat is bobbing near the dock between two buoys , oh, I’m sorry I, the voice of her friend is now saying inside the telephone receiver, but her husband cannot hear this. 

This is a fractured Europe that we in the UK are barely aware of on a day to day basis. A Europe filled with countries that have been invaded, raped, ‘healed’, torn apart again; mothers, sisters, families and possessions lost decades ago, but somehow people carry on, form new alliances and relationships.

It’s terrific stuff, salutary and sad and well, completely different to what we are used to. Whatever it is one hopes to get out of a book, this should meet the criterion. 

HOW THE OTHER HALF DIES [By Susan George 1976]. Another layered, deep book that I have read many, many times. It is subtitled The Real Reasons for World Hunger, but it is so much more. I see someone on Goodreads has said in their review, ‘It’s a bit old to be relevant’. Right. Anyone see Robert Mugabe’s birthday celebrations on TV the other day? A bit old to be relevant? Yet another third-world country where 95% is in the hands of 2%.

This treatise explains everything and it is completely and utterly relevant in 2016. Western-armed elites; Western-educated elites; Western-paid, Western corrupted, we want you to grow biofuels now. Yessir! For export. Yessir! What do we feed our own people, says the opposition from a manacled prison cell? Off with his head. Yessir!

Read it and weep.

THE PORTAGE TO SAN CRISTOBAL of AH [By George Steiner 1979]. I have read a few books about the Holocaust: The White Hotel; The Search Warrant come immediately to mind. Watched Shoah [Lanzmann] twice, once when it first came out and again a couple of years ago when it was re-shown on BBC2 and then only a couple of weeks ago watching the re-runs of Band of Brothers on Sky when it reached the episode where they discover the concentration camp in the woods and that astonishingly realistic representation of the prisoners. Very recently, I found myself caught in an e mail conversation with a much respected Amazon 500 reviewer and found myself admitting I never read ‘books about Jews’ now. And I don’t; I’ve read enough of mans inhumanity to man to last me the rest of my life. I am not fascinated by what the Ukrainians did to Jewish women, if indeed I ever was.

But we need to know. We need to know so that we can try and reach some kind of understanding.

The Portage to San Cristobal of AH is an attempt by Jewish Historian, George Steiner to work out the answer to the question, why? He uses the device of I think it is three Israeli commandos who discover that Adolf is still alive and well and living in the deep rainforests of Central Argentina. They resolve to get him out to face  a trial somewhere [bit like Eichmann] but of course he is old now, too old to make the journey on foot so they have to carry him: The Portage and they take him to the nearest large town: San Cristobal, from where they can fly him to Tel Aviv without being discovered. On the way, they ask him what he thinks he was up to and did he really mean to murder all the Jews. It is breath-taking stuff and you need a very strong stomach but if you really want to know, beyond Lanzmann and the flickering approximations of Band of Brothers and Schindlers List, read it.

THE GOOD DOCTOR [By Damon Galgut 2003]. Slightly cheating calling this a novel, ‘no-one has heard of’ because it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003.But I don’t know anyone . . . avid and fairweather readers alike . . . who has actually read it.

It is tremendous. I adore this book, if I could write like this I would die a happy bunny. I cannot do any better than quote from the blurb on the back cover:

‘A tremendous brave book. The author never flinches, and makes his hero’s dark logic compelling and hair-raising. The dialogue is faultless and the pace perfect. Galgut writes like a man on a long fast night drive through bad places. You’re in the front passenger seat but you would rather be in the back. You could get out but you don’t. And you see things you would rather forget. It’s brilliant’. – [the late] Dermot Healy.

Says it all. Says it all.

What’s it about? A remote hospital in a South African Bantustan and the people who work there some of them trying to provide care and treatment for the patients, some of them with other motives. Show not tell is errr . . . the operative verb here.

FROM THE ALLEGHENIES TO THE HEBRIDES [By Margaret Fay Shaw 2008]. ‘A miniature masterpiece’ – Times Literary Supplement.

And it is; a real gem that no-one has ever heard of.

I’ve been to the Hebrides quite a few times, to Harris and Lewis three times. They change each time. A lot. When I first went to Lewis in the late-sixties it was so empty. Space and light all around. Now, every spare field has a house being constructed upon it. You needed a map to find Callanish . . . no-one had heard of it then  . . . and once there you could wander around the ancient stones on your own for as long as you wanted. Now there is a visitor centre; you can hardly get into the carpark for the coach tour buses and you can’t get any sense whatsoever of the alignments there are so many people and kids. Allowing their dogs to urinate against the sacred stones.  

And of course everyone speaks English in fact I wonder if everyone is English. All you hear are stockbroker Surrey accents; the Gaelic is almost never heard.

This is a lovely little biography, sorry autobiography about cultural displacement and renewal. She was a collector of songs and traditional music and travelled widely through communities with roots, collecting, hoarding, discovering and photographing.

It is sharply observed.

Best to be honest if you have been to the Outer Hebrides. If you haven’t, it will galvanise you into going at the first opportunity.

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