A Reading Challenge for 2017

I made a simple resolution as we went into 2017: I would drink an extra small bottle of water everyday to improve my hydration. So far, that one is working.  Back in December I also decided that, on the last Sunday of every month, I would write something for this site.  It wasn’t really a resolution, rather an updated version of the Blog Every Wednesday in August task I set myself a few years ago: the idea was to write something here to make paying for the hosting worth it. This new commitment was given the title “Sermon Of the Last Sunday”.  As with all things these days, there’s a hashtag #SOLS. See if you can work out which came first: the series name or the hashtag.

Also at the end of last year I set myself a Goodreads challenge to read 12 books in 2017. This shouldn’t be the hardest commitment as it’s just one book a month but, if I succeed, I will end up reading more than I did last year.  There are plenty of people that inspired me to try this challenge (which you can follow on Goodreads) but, possibly, I made my decision after reading Bill Gates’ favourite books of 2016. He manages an eclectic list of recommendations. I hope to have as diverse a range of books on my ‘has read’ list by the end of the year.

More recently, Entertainment Weekly published a list of Every book Barack Obama recommended during his presidency. Another eclectic, and inspirational, list. Seriously, if he can be such an voracious reader and run America then I can read 12 books this year. As Bill Gates says,

Still, reading books is my favorite way to learn about a new topic. I’ve been reading about a book a week on average since I was a kid. Even when my schedule is out of control, I carve out a lot of time for reading. [source]

So, when trying to come-up with the first SOLS entry I thought I’d review one of the books that ended last year. It was the book I was reading when I read Bill’s list; it was fascinating and a little hard-going at times but it took me out of my daily commute and made me think about something else.  Which, I think, is something a good book should do.  I have reviewed books here before, and I am not sure I will attempt to review all 12, but it’s such a well written book I’d recommend adding it to your own reading list.

I’m grateful to the staff of Waterstones in Chichester who persuaded me that this was a book worth reading as I was browsing their store at some point last year. I don’t often spend time just wandering book shops but there was an opportunity and I took it. I’m very glad I did.

Cover of SkyfaringSkyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot

For some people, a job takes you to the same place each day, surrounded by colleagues who you see daily and get to know over time. Not quite so for pilots, especially those flying long haul, where the variation in crew is almost as changeable as the constantly altering view from the cockpit.

Mark Vanhoenacker, a British Airways 747 long haul pilot, writes about flight through series of chapters documenting the experiences of moving from one part of the world to another with chapters such as Place, Wayfinding, Night and Return.

It’s not a biography of a pilot, a technical guide to flying nor a travelogue rather it’s a rhapsodic love affair with flight and all it involves and, so, it’s a little bit of all those things put together with some beautifully written, almost lyrical, prose. Don’t expect a chronological guide to flight but a collection of chapters that take their subject and describe the experience from the complex to the minutia; written from a vantage of someone obviously captivated by the charm of flight.

The style is vivid and descriptive, but the detail of the language can sometimes make reading it hard work. Don’t let that put you off because it’s worth a little perseverance to get close to understanding why the experience of flight it both magical and disorienting at the same time.

Footnotes

Skyfaing, A Journey with a Pilot, available at Amazon.

Elsewhere: An Insiders View Of Government

The diary format is easy to dip in to – and that had been my intention – but I found I was hooked and could spend many hours reading; it’s not a slimline book!

A just posted a review on Goodreads and Amazon of Chris Mullin’s account of life inside the Labour government.

A View from the FoothillsA View from the Foothills by Chris Mullin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An an insiders view of life as a Labour MP and, at times, as a junior Minsiter (transport and environment/Africa) this is a compelling read. The diary format is easy to dip in to – and that had been my intention – but I found I was hooked and could spend many hours reading; it’s not a slimline book! The inner working of government are fascinating: Mullin has a particular dislike for the poorly written speeches he was expected to deliver; the excesses of Ministerial cars and the fact that, as a Junior Minister, it seems impossible to actually get anything done. It’s interesting to see that a relatively few number of MPs – mainly those nearest the Prime Minister – can actually do very much at all; the rest expected to tow the party line. Mullin was not that close to The Man but he certainly has a different view than most of us. Of most interest historically, of course, are the discussions that lead to the UK’s support of the Iraqi war but, if you’re interested in how much of government works, this is possibly better positioned than some of the bigger names.

View all my reviews

The Whispering Years

It’s not dull or bland in anyway but, perhaps because there’s a little of the 60s hippy left in Bob Harris, you feel the measured approach is entirely appropriate.

You really do get to appreciate ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris’ love of music through his autobiography, ‘The Whispering Years‘. You’ll read in the blurb that he’s been married three times; has had to re-start his career from scratch several times and almost lost his record collection to a fellow Radio 1 disc jockey. What you may not get from reviews is a feeling of the genuine passion he has for the music and how big a role some of the greatest musicians of the last thirty years have played in his life. You feel as uneasy as Bob appeared to over the fame that The Old Grey Whistle Test brought him and you will feel somewhat betrayed when Radio One remove him (I’d forgotten he was the voice launched round-the-clock Radio One in August 1990). Throughout his career he stuck to his passion – the music – and shunned the computer generated radio that dominates the airwaves today. His interview technique was considered ‘less than penetrating’ in the past but that gentle approach serves him well in book form. It’s not dull or bland in anyway but, perhaps because there’s a little of the 60s hippy left in Bob Harris, you feel the measured approach is entirely appropriate. If you love music (and not just progressive rock) or enjoy his radio programmes then The Whispering Years will be engaging, fascinating and inspiring.

Lucky Man: A Memoir

An absorbing and very well-written book that proves that people in the public eye and just like the rest of us.

Michael J Fox
Michael J Fox

Lucky Man is not a typical Hollywood star autobiography. While it is peppered with references to the television shows and movies Michael J Fox has made it is – most definately – not a name-dropping ‘look at me’ celebrity obsessed biography. Yes, it’s an insight – although not too revealing – into the inner sanctum of Hollywood stars but it’s very much grounded in the real world. It deals with the highs and lows of a film career and the pleasures and pressures that brings. When reading the book you really do feel as if Michael J Fox has been able to take a step back and look upon his own career from outside. He’s able to analyse the fame, the money and identify both the good and the problematic that his career has brought him. However, from the beginning of the book, his upbringing and his rise to (and through) fame are placed in context by the Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis. That diagnosis has allowed Fox to asses what’s important to him and write a book that shows him as a genuine, warm and open individual. There’s no sentimentality about the book and he does detail how the disease effects him but, at no point, do you feel like an intruder into his private life. Despite the difficult nature of the Parkinson’s Disease descriptions, Lucky Man is an absorbing and very well-written book that proves that people in the public eye and just like the rest of us.

21 Dog Years: Doing Time At Amazon.Com

Daisey’s book is flagged as a comic tale but it takes a while for the comedy to warm-up. In fact, it’s only towards the end that I felt there were some laugh-out-loud moments but don’t let that put you off. ’21 Dogs Years’ in well written and compelling.

It’s quite easy to get sucked into Mike Daisey’s ‘21 Dog Years: Doing Time At Amazon.Com‘ as he moves from dilettante to corporate business development guy. On the journey we learn he is one of the (mythological?) freaks that Amazon initially wanted to help launch and then staff its growing customer service division. We learn about the training, the call-time targets, the lack of windows, the Chicken Orzo Salad and Jeff obsessions.

Unlike Robert Spector’s ‘Amazon.Com: Get Big Fast‘ this is a tale from the inside but how much is exaggerated for comic effect is unclear. For sure, life in an under-staffed call centre – where if you don’t work all hours you’re seen as letting the team down – is not the glamorous side of any business and the world of fast growing online books sellers can be no exception. The dreams that all would be multi-millionaires on the back of huge stock rises are also not unusual to any tale of this era. Perhaps the thought of sending the free books to customers on the database isn’t typical of the dot-com boom but the frenzied ‘1-click Christmas’ period will be familiar to many in a start-up venture.

Daisey’s book is flagged as a comic tale but it takes a while for the comedy to warm-up. In fact, it’s only towards the end that I felt there were some laugh-out-loud moments but don’t let that put you off. ’21 Dogs Years’ in well written and compelling. You really do want to know what Mike’s going to do at the end. Don’t look for an insight into business strategies of that time but you will get a view of the craziness of life in the trenches of rapidly growing business.

Elsewhere: Blitzed! The Autobiography of Steve Strange

In some respects it’s a fascinating tale of fame and hedonism. If, however, you’ve read biographies of other Eighties pop stars then you’ve heard a lot of it before. The story seems to have been repeated: humble beginnings drive creativity which lead to fame and then there is a some-kind of fa

I’ve just finished Blitzed! The autobiography of Steve Strange and posted my review to Amazon:

Steve Strange was an icon of the Eighties music scene, a visionary and a leader. I suspect he’s often over-looked but his contribution was vital. His clubs kick-started a movement and the band he fronted, Visage, were pioneers of – what became – the New Romantics: make-up, big hair, big hats and even bigger shirt lapels and cuffs. From the beginning of the decade, and out of the punk movement, came the classic Fade To Gray. Visage and Steve Strange were combining fashion and music in a radical new way.

Blitzed has an informal style which makes it quite readable. Strange name-drops his way through a decade and apologises quite a lot for his behaviour. It’s a cautionary tale of a rise to fame, money mis-management and drug addiction. It’s the story of London squats and club-land rivalry and of a community who knew they were changing nightclubs, the fashion scene and music – and doing it all in a few short years. It is a struggle to stop a man falling over the edge and trying to make sense of a life where once his name was in lights but the money is long gone.

In some respects it’s a fascinating tale of fame and hedonism. If, however, you’ve read biographies of other Eighties pop stars then you’ve heard a lot of it before. The story seems to have been repeated: humble beginnings drive creativity which lead to fame and then there is a some-kind of fall (usually, drink or drug induced). Blitzed is an enjoyable read but Boy George will give you more and Marc Almond will take you further. If you knew the club scene of the time there’s a insight into the door policies of the new breed of Eighties clubs and how they worked. If you are looking for the story of Visage then, obviously, it’s covered here and this will be a valuable reference – but it’s more about the man than the band.

If you remember the decade then you’ll read this book regardless but, sadly, I felt there could have been a little more. Nonetheless, Blitzed reinforces Steve Strange’s rightful place as a leader of a movement who’s certainly not about to fade away.

Elsewhere: The Kenneth Williams Diaries

The diaries are very well written and Davies’ editing not intrusive. Williams certainly didn’t appear to edit himself and the result is a frank and articulate book.

In my quest to ensure that I review every book that I read for Amazon (because I find other people’s reviews very useful) I’ve added my latest. It’s for the Kenneth Williams Diaries. I seemed to be reading them for ages – there are forty years worth of entries. It’s interesting for me because, during the time I was reading them I have also been maintaining this blog. While this isn’t quite a diary, the process is very similar and one paragraph in the diaries struck me as interesting:

The preoccupation with diary writing is caused by various things: the desire to keep a record which can be useful later, and committing to paper what can’t be communicated to a mentor … oh! all kinds of reasons, but fundamentally it is about loneliness.

Is it? Maybe it is. Who knows?

The Kenneth Williams Diaries, Edited by Russell Davies (Harper Collins, 1993)

Kenneth Williams DiariesI honestly think Kenneth Williams was unique. He certainly seemed to hate much about himself and didn’t have a great deal of time for a lot of other people. Sadly, the Diaries’ reputation precedes them and I expected more of the bitchiness that he is – supposedly – famed for. Despite that, there is plenty of Kenneth’s acid tongue in this book. His barbs are aimed squarely at his fans, his colleagues and the shows he felt obliged to work in. Some of the most intriguing insights are those that relate to the Carry On film series. Before Carry On made him famous, he was a well-respected stage actor. The Carry On films made him legendary (and wealthy) but he often felt they were beneath him.

Kenneth is well aware of his own nature. On 20 March 1987 he writes, “Everyone was v. nice to me … it is extraordinary that I’m so liked because I’m invariably rude & tetchy” and that sums up much of the book. You get a sense of love for the theatre, plays, and poetry and even for some of the work. However he is also offensive to many and seemed to have few good words for much of British Theatre. Much of the hate is due to an inner turmoil over the lack of companionship in his life (“Never to speak of my love for a man”) and some from the frustrations of his nature. Obsessed by noise and cleanliness the very act of living seems painful – and in the end his illness and genuine pain appear to get too much for him.

The diaries are very well written and Davies’ editing not intrusive. Williams certainly didn’t appear to edit himself and the result is a frank and articulate book. Words seem to flow easily which is, perhaps, not surprising for a man who made a living in the final years of his life from his large collection of humorous anecdotes. Spanning over forty years it’s hard to keep track of the players in Kenneth’s life and at 800 pages it’s not a light read. Nevertheless, the diaries are a vivid, malicious and (at times) very funny read into the world of a man who, in his day, was considered outrageous.

Inspirational Eden

Tim Smit provides an insight into the group vision that resulted in one of the more successful Millennium projects – Eden. And the fact that it is the work of a committed group of people is not lost on the reader. Smit regularly repeats the mantra that Eden was only developed thanks to the work of a wide range of individuals from contractors to councils, and not forgetting the plant-men.

Tim Smit provides an insight into the group vision that resulted in one of the more successful Millennium projects – Eden. And the fact that it is the work of a committed group of people is not lost on the reader. Smit regularly repeats the mantra that Eden was only developed thanks to the work of a wide range of individuals from contractors to councils, and not forgetting the plant-men.

If you want to understand some details behind the way such projects are developed then this is a book you should read. When the project was floundering while all the funding partners came together then Tim Smit was there and he relives it through the book. Sometimes you wonder how it call came together.

On the other hand, if you are a plant-lover, gardener or horticulturalist then this is also a book you should read. Smit tells the fascinating story of the development of the biome concepts and the plants they chose to grow. More importantly he discusses the relationship between man and the natural surroundings we inhabit; debating our fragile relationship with a range of environments along the way.

However, what you take from this book is a mixture of all of the above. Landscaping, plant husbandry and environmental considerations sit alongside planning, funding, road building and visitor education projects. It’s one man’s personal account rather than a definitive history and the cast of characters seems endless and, sometimes, confusing. However, the determination and vision that drove the project; the commitment and enthusiasm of all the people and the role Eden believes it should be playing on the world stage are all presented in an accessible, very readable account of, what seems to have been, a long but successful process. If this book doesn’t inspire you to aim higher and better, then nothing will.Buy Eden at Amazon.co.uk

Fast Food Nation

It did not come as much of a surprise to find that so-called fast food is not the healthiest food in the world.

Fast Food Nation BookIt did not come as much of a surprise to find that so-called fast food is not the healthiest food in the world. It was certainly no surprise to discover that the fast food chains are not the greatest employers in the world. It wasn’t unexpected to read that the big brands employ so many people that they wield great economic power.

What did, however, surprise and alarm me was the sheer influence Eric Schlosser claims the fast food companies have over the whole food chain and related economies. Is it really in the consumer’s best interests for the large food giants to have such a firm grip on the production of the raw materials that make up their final products? It is suggested that this power has knock-on effects on the health of (not only) consumers but on the shape of the entire economy.

Schlosser’s book makes disturbing reading. It’s unashamedly populist in its approach, suggesting that economic gain and corporate profit are more important than the well-being of the consumers. However, regardless of the author’s standpoint much of the evidence he produces is damming and that makes it a compelling read. If you’ve ever eaten fast food you should read it. It has certainly made me think harder about ordering anything “with fries to go”.