october/november 2019 books…

Red Snow (Will Dean): My second Dean book featuring Tuva Moodyson, a reporter on the local newspaper in a small Swedish town of Gavrik (the first novel was ‘Dark Pines’). Two bodies: one suicide, one murder. Tuva is about to move south to a new job and has just two weeks to help track down a killer. Gavrik feels a bit like the Swedish equivalent of a ‘Midsomer Murders’ location and Tuva seems to have the gift of helping to solve crimes in the way that ‘Silent Witness’ renders the police force entirely superfluous! Actually, this is another extremely good ‘thriller’ – a real page-turner (all 394 pages of it). I love the Tuva character and thought the plot was intriguing (and clever)… and, blow me down, I’ve just discovered that there’s a third book in the series (Black River)!
Survive The Savage Sea (Dougal Robertson): This book, first published in 1973 (a year after the events took place), is quite remarkable for two reasons: a) it tells the story of how four adults and two children survived in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean in a rubber raft, a 9ft fibreglass dingy, emergency rations, water for 3 days and no maps for 38 days, and b) that one of the adults was my great mate Robin! The Robertson family had lived on an upland dairy farm in North Staffordshire; life was tough, with constant financial struggles. On a whim, they decided to sail around the world (father Dougal had served with the Merchant Marine) in a 43 foot schooner. 22 year-old Robin (economics/statistics graduate with no sailing experience) joined them as an extra crew member/hitchhiker in Panama for the voyage to New Zealand. Sailing west from the Galapagos Islands their schooner was sunk by a pod of some 20 killer whales. With no advance warning (obviously!), they were forced to abandon ship and take ‘refuge’ on their raft, tugging a 9ft dingy and with only salvaged pieces of flotsam to assist them (indeed, after 17 days, they were forced to abandon the raft altogether and to survive in just their 9ft dingy in dangerous, shark-infested waters and at the mercy of the elements!). Their ingenuity was quite extraordinary – they ate raw fish and turtles; drank rainwater or turtle blood; they improvised using what meagre pieces of material and equipment they could utilise; and, somehow, they were able to ‘live’ within their ridiculously confined space and all the relationship tensions that ‘mere survival’ threw at them. They were eventually picked up by a 300 ton Japanese fishing vessel… and, amazingly, they all had indeed survived. Quite, quite extraordinary.
Books v Cigarettes (George Orwell): This book comprises a series of essays written between 1936 and 1947. The book’s title relates to one of the essays relating to Orwell’s dilemma about whether he spends more money on reading or smoking! Other articles/essays cover subjects ranging from the perils of second-hand bookshops; the ‘dubious profession’ of being a book reviewer; freedom of the press (with vague references to what today we might call ‘fake news’); what patriotism really means; and, finally, recollections from his days as a prep-school pupil at St Cyprian’s (“an expensive and snobbish school which was in the process of becoming more snobbish, and, I imagine, more expensive”). Thoughts from another age – but entertaining and uncompromising nevertheless.
The Narrow Road To The Deep North (Matsuo Basho): This book, by Japanese poet and diarist Basho (1644-94), describes a series of travels (on foot, by horseback or boat) designed to strip away the trappings of the material world and bring spiritual enlightenment. These sketches include numerous of his haiku poems – which do much to capture his vision of the transient world around him. In this rather lovely book, his words are sensitively translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa (using a four-line stanza in translating the traditonal three-line haiku form in order to achieve the “natural conversational rhythm” in English rather than a “constrained” three-line stanza)(yes, that might sound ‘over-technical’, but Yuasa’s introduction to the book provides a helpful justification). Amongst other things, it’s a book about the changing seasons and about noticing nature and beauty – for example, he frequently describes making particular journeys at particular times in order to see a full moon rise over an individual mountain. Above all, I found it a very gentle, satisfying book – its pace and rhythm echoing the pace and rhythm of the journeys and matched by the simplicity of the language.    
The Songlines (Bruce Chatwin): First published in 1987, I first read it in 1993 (blimey, 26 years ago… feels like only yesterday!). I decided to re-read it after a fascinating TV documentary by Werner Herzog, inspired by his friend Chatwin’s own journeys. The book’s about the invisible pathways connecting up all over Australia… “ancient tracks made of songs which tell of the creation of the land”. Aboriginals’ religious duty is ritually to travel the land, singing the Ancestors’ songs. I love Chatwin’s writing. He has a gift for stories and description… and for seeing details. He describes a trip to Australia, taken for the express purpose of researching Aboriginal songand its connections to nomadic travel. It includes discussions (frequently hilarious and sometimes sad) with Australians, many of them Indigenous Australians, about ‘Outback’ culture; Aboriginal culture and religion; and the Aboriginal land rights movement. A remarkable book and very good to read it again.