Truth and fiction, and Truth IN fiction.

I read all sorts of books, some fiction and some non-fiction. Almost without fail, if I am reading a novel, my wife (who only reads non-fiction) will comment “I don’t know why you bother with novels – what are you going to learn from them?”

My argument is that not only do I read novels as a way to escape from our day to day reality, but quite often there is something to learn from a novel – be it a story of morals or something else. Take the book I am currently reading “Afterlight” by Alex Scarrow.

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It’s a post-apocalyptic story, set in the UK, about the chaos produced by a sudden oil shortage……especially when the shortage turns into a total lack of oil, and the consequences associated with that – no transport so no food deliveries. The power grid unable to take the load demanded once oil powered power stations were no longer on line etc etc. Rioting, looting, disease and depravity took hold – the result being a dramatic reduction in the population. The main story-line begins 10 years after the oil ran out and follows a small band of survivors who have taken up residence on an oil rig in the north sea, off the coast of Norfolk. Every second chapter however, tells the story from when the chaos first started, ten years earlier. The British Government initially declared martial law and set up “safe zones” in sport stadiums with emergency supplies guarded by the police and troops.

So far (about a third into the book) it’s following a very stressed government employee who is in charge of one of the safe zones, but as more time passes a military coup seems inevitable…..as that is what has happened in safe zones in other parts of the UK. As supplies start to dwindle, the soldiers took over and started to kick out non-essential civilians such as the old and sick……eventually raping the remaining women and killing the men as chaos and disorder took over.

There is a page from the book I’d like to share with you where a recent refugee who has been taken in by the community on the oil rig is discussing the “progress” made by the community in that they have now engineered a bio-digester – It feeds on human and animal waste and old food scraps to produce methane which then powers a small generator to give them electricity for lighting and to play a small stereo for 3 hours every evening. Some of the younger people on the rig are hoping similar progress has been made on the mainland and that soon the cities will be up and running again with street lights, video games and TV’s. The older members and the newcomer are less enthusiastic about a return to the status quo of before the oil crisis. This extract from the book is when Valerie (a French speaking male from Belgium) is talking to 2 teenage boys and a young girl about how things were leading up to the oil crisis.

‘You want to live in a big city, full of noises and lights?’
‘Yeah, ‘course,’ replied Nathan.
The man shook his head with incredulity. Both Nathan and Jacob stared at him, bemused.
‘I believe the world was sick then,’ he continued. ‘And people were sick with a disease of the soul. You understand me?’
Neither boy did. Not really.
‘Most people were not happy. Most people were sick in their heart, unhappy lives. We all lived our isolated lives in our little homes and saw the world beyond through a tiny…..digital window. People did not talk to each other. Instead they typed messages to complete strangers on the internet. The more things we had the unhappier we became because there was always people on the TV who had very much more.’
Valerie shook his head and smiled sadly. ‘You do not see how much better your life is now, do you?’
Jacob, Nathan and Hannah continued to stare at him in bewildered silence.
‘I think your mother understands this. It is not things – and all the electricity that makes those things work – that makes a good life. They are just things; distractions, you know? Shiny little amusements made to look so wonderful and fun and the answer to your unhappiness. But you get the shiny things home and unwrap them, you hold them in your hand…..and they are just shiny things, that is all. They mean nothing.’
Valerie looked at the generator. ‘You know what it is that really destroyed the old world?’
They shrugged.
‘It was greed.’
Nathan and Jacob glanced at each other.

‘You know children killed each other for things like training shoes? Or mobile phones?’ Valerie continued. ‘The time just before the crash was mankind at his most evil. There were wars for oil, wars for gas. People killed for things, for power. Killed for oil. It was a world filled with jealousy for all the things we would see others have on the TV. A world of greed. Anger. Hate……..All the bright shiny lights and noises…..video games, the TV, the internet, music, the shopping, the arcades…..these things were made by governments to distract us; to keep our minds full and busy….so we did not realise how unhappy we all were.

The fact is that although this book is a novel, the breakdown of society, of law, of morals – brought about by a severe shortage of oil – could easily happen. We are so dependent on transportation, on shipping and air freight, on imported goods, to provide us with everything we need. Fiction often mirrors fact. There are lessons to be learned from this book about how once civilised people treat one another after as little as three days without food. How important a true sense of community is – take the time to talk to and get to know your neighbours. How important it is to have personal plans in place in case of emergency, rather than depending on the government to take care of you. And of alternate ways of living other than the consumer driven, oil dependent lifestyle we currently cling to. The consumer/capitalist/growth economy model is destroying the world that we depend on. All that disposable crap that we can’t live without – and yet we end up throwing it into the landfill or into our oceans – will be the death of us….and we’re taking thousands of other species with us.

None of the above is news to me, but it would be to some people. The ones who are easily distracted by the shiny baubles of life. The duplicity of governments and high ranking government officials, who are basically in the pockets of the corporate businessmen, is not a surprise….. but it is a reminder to me not to become sucked in to the world of corporate smoke and mirrors. To be seduced by the lies, damn lies and statistics produced to back up any argument. The so called ‘war on terror’ – pushed on the western world by the Bush Administration was no more than a political smokescreen to justify the invasion of oil rich, non-white, non-Christian countries. The sad thing is that it’s been carried on by subsequent governments and they are still playing the sleight of hand game with the civilian population even today (who are too busy playing with their shiny toys to notice or even care) – justifying invading other sovereign nations and stealing their natural resources due to some fictitious crime that they are meant to have committed. Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction – that never actually existed – justified the invasion of Iraq. Both America’s Bush and Britain’s Blair swore that they had “undeniable evidence” that these weapons existed. The world believed them and a nation was destroyed – in order to get at their oil supplies. Then the invading countries tell the world that – Whoops our mistake, no weapons of mass destruction, (but he was a nasty guy with a bad moustashe anyway) and it’s OK that we’ve bombed the hell out of Iraq and destroyed their infrastructure and murdered thousands, possibly millions, of civilians (collateral damage), because we are now investing millions of dollars in the country to get them back on their feet again. What they don’t say is that the money invested is being spent mainly on setting up their own refineries and oil wells, pipelines and railways and roads to link the refineries to the ports and harbours, for American and allied tankers to come into and fill up with plundered oil. Meantime the Iraqis are still living among the rubble. And the action of the western powerful and power hungry nations in destroying these oil rich countries is creating more terrorists out of what were peaceful people. This increase in people angry at the west and what has been done to their home lands and their economy then justifies the War on Terror and perpetuates it. The only way to defeat terror is to not take part in terror. But the powerful governments know that as long as there is a perceived terror threat, its people will willingly give away their rights and freedoms in exchange for perceived safety and security. It’s a sick world alright!

I think one of the biggest things wrong with the world today is that we have given away our right to think for ourselves. The government have been given too much power, too much control over how we live our lives. The media are controlled by big business so we only see on TV what they want us to see. “Good evening and here is the news that we want you to know about and here is how we want you to perceive that news.” There are too many rules and regulations that restrict our lifestyle choices, where we can live, what we can build, what we can teach our children, whether we have the choice to vaccinate our kids or refuse vaccinations, what we can grow in our gardens…..our movement from one place to another. We have become dependent on government to provide for us rather than being responsible for our own lives. We have given away so much of our freedom in exchange for baubles and shiny toys and they have buried us under a mountain of unnecessary legislation and taxation. We’ve been tricked into living on credit…credit cards and easy loans…which keeps us deeply in debt and therefore slaves to the system. If we’re going to survive, we need to turn this on it’s head and have a return to community reliance where small communities are self governing, have minimal rules and where the individual can have control over their own lives. Unfortunately many of us will be too busy messaging strangers on the net, searching for the latest shiny distraction to buy or streaming the next series of mind numbing, so called, reality TV, to care.

Please give serious thought to how you live your life. If you are concerned about how we’re damaging the environment on which we depend use your purchasing power positively and be wise about what you buy. Vote with your wallet. Try to move toward renewable energy sources, avoid plastics and look toward using only renewable materials to make the things that we need, and protect the planet. I don’t want to sound patronising or cliche, but we do need to be the change that we want to see in the world.

My earlier post about Anarchists nicely dove-tails into this discussion.

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Just a thought on Anarchy. is it as bad as it sounds?

This is somewhat different to my usual posts…..

Mention the words Anarchism or Anarchist to most people and the image that immediately springs to mind is that of a rioting youth, a lone wolf, wearing heavy boots, a hooded jacket and an anarchist t-shirt resplendent with the letter A in a circle….and a petrol bomb in hand ready to throw either at Police or through a shop window. To support anarchy – to be an anarchist you must be a Yob…the dregs of society right? AND to be honest with you, that’s what I initially thought too.

Look up Anarchism on the all knowing Wikipedia and it tells you this:-

Anarchism is an anti-authoritarian political philosophy that advocates self-managed, self-governed societies based on voluntary, cooperative institutions and the rejection of hierarchies those societies view as unjust. These institutions are often described as stateless societies, although several authors have defined them more specifically as distinct institutions based on non-hierarchical or free associations. Anarchism holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary and harmful. Anarchism does not offer a fixed body of doctrine from a single particular worldview, many anarchist types and traditions exist and varieties of anarchy diverge widely. Anarchist schools of thought can differ fundamentally, supporting anything from extreme individualism to complete collectivism.

I’m not sure about you, but to me that sounds very reasonable…..ideal even. You may have been surprised to see the words – self governed societies and voluntary cooperative institutions – because for a society or institution to exist it follows that there would be rules and regulations surely, and that would be against what Anarchists want, wouldn’t it? The answer is – Anarchists operate on principles or ideals rather than rules and regulations, they are very much against RULERS. (The etymological origin of anarchism derives from ancient Greek word anarkhia. Anarkhia meant “without a ruler”). What they want is TRUE EQUALITY.

Personal autonomy and human rights are highly connected and cannot exist without one another. This reflects not only the equality of all individuals but also their autonomy, their right to have and pursue interests and goals different from those of the state and its rulers. Naturally as far as Anarchism is concerned there would be no rulers or state. Just true equality and personal and/or group autonomy….just as our ancestors would have had back when they were gathered into loose groups of hunter gatherers – equality with common aim.

Throughout history anarchists have been very much un-Yob-like. Lets take a look at a few of them. Respected thinkers, writers, intellectuals and even a few celebrities have followed the anarchist path. Take Plato for instance.

Or how about Charlie Chaplin?

Or…Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, usually referred to in English as Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer who is regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time. His books War and Peace and Anna Karenina are still lauded as classics of literature and yet…..another anarchist thinker.

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To come finally right up to date with one of today’s great thinkers, writer, intellectual, political commentator and critic….Noam Chomsky. Chomsky believes anarchism is a direct descendant of liberalism, perfecting the ideals of personal liberty. Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, social critic, and political activist. Sometimes called “the father of modern linguistics”, Chomsky is also a major figure in analytic philosophy and one of the founders of the field of cognitive science. Professor emeritus of Linguistics at MIT…doesn’t seem like the preconceived idea of an anarchist does he?

So….is anarchy a bad thing? Your comments, opinions etc are most welcome.

Featherston NZ book festival 2019 and my haul of books.

The weekend of May 9th to 12th saw the fifth annual Featherston Book Festival. As you will know from my earlier posts, Featherston was admitted into the organisation of International Book Towns last year, so this was their first book festival as an official member. They ran a number of events – Author readings, literary talks, book binding workshops, printing, poetry, activities for children and much more, plus of course lots of books to buy from existing Featherston bookshops and a number of visiting booksellers who set up stalls in halls. I particularly enjoyed John Arnold’s seminar, titled An introduction to book collecting in the Internet Age, which was very informative and included free handout sheets of useful information.

I had only recently arrived back in New Zealand on the Sunday the previous weekend after almost a month in the USA where I’d visited several bookstores in San Francisco and the mighty Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon and was feeling a little travel weary, so maybe didn’t appreciate Featherston’s festival as much as I should have. But that’s down to my demeanour, not their efforts. I’d had visions of returning home from the festival with the back seat of the car covered in books, but alas that was not the case.

There were maybe a dozen book sellers who had set up stalls in the main ANZAC hall in town, some from Featherston and some from further afield, but I found their stalls of books either not to my taste, or overpriced for the condition of the books. As Yoda would say “Disappointed I was”. I only bought two books for myself from the hall and one for my wife – Roald Dahl’s My Uncle Oswald. She’s been a reader and collector of Roald Dahl books since childhood……I love to annoy her by calling him Ronald, telling her that his mum was dyslexic. My own purchases from the hall were Janesville – An American Story by Amy Goldstein. Goldstein follows the fortunes….or misfortunes of the people of the town of Janesville, when the General Motors plant that employed much of the town’s population closed. It won the Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of the Year prize. Tracy Kidder – the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Soul of a New Machine says “Anyone tempted to generalize about the American working class ought to meet the people in Janesville. The reporting behind this book is extraordinary and the story – a stark, heartbreaking reminder that political ideologies have real consequences – is told with rare sympathy and insight.” Over four and a half thousand people on Goodreads have voted and given this book a rating of 4.12 out of a possible 5.

My second book from the hall stalls was Colombian writer – Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was browsing the various books in the hall and when I saw the title of this one it rang a bell of recognition as a friend of mine, Chilean born/Czech based writer Jorge Zuniga Pavlov, recommended it to me some time ago. I have not read any of Garcia Marquez’s books, but he is….or I should say was, as he died in 2014….a prolific writer, who started as a journalist, and wrote many acclaimed non-fiction works and short stories, but is best known for his novels, such as The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) and of course the book that I purchased, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). He was a prize-winning author, having won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1972 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. Over half a million people on Goodreads have rated this book at 4.06 out of 5 and say “The brilliant, bestselling, landmark novel that tells the story of the Buendia family, and chronicles the irreconcilable conflict between the desire for solitude and the need for love—in rich, imaginative prose that has come to define an entire genre known as “magical realism.

I had much more luck in the actual bookshops in town, rather than at the much hyped Anzac Hall. I visited 6 or 7 bookshops and made purchases in just two of them. In The Dickensian Bookshop (which incidentally sells much more than books by Dickens) I bought Tim Moore’s Do Not Pass Go where he takes us on a trip around London by way of the streets and utilities mentioned on the Monopoly Board. Its a comedic travelogue of one man’s erratic progress around those 28 streets, stations and utilities, Do Not Pass Go is also an epic and lovingly researched history of London’s wayward progress in the years since the launch of the world’s most popular board game back in the 1930’s. And according to the blurb on Goodreads….”Sampling the rags and the riches he stays in a hotel in Mayfair and one in the Old Kent Road, enjoys quality time with Dr Crippen in Pentonville Prison and even winds up at the wrong end of the Water Works pipe. And, solving all the mysteries you’ll have pondered whilst languishing in jail and many other you certainly wouldn’t, Tim Moore reveals how Pall Mall got its name, which three addresses you won’t find in your London A-Z and why the sorry cul-de-sac that is Vine Street has a special place in the heart of Britain’s most successful Monopoly champion.”

My second book from Dickensian Bookshop – where incidentally, I was most impressed by the friendliness and knowledge of books from the lady behind the counter – was a novel by Michael Palin called “The Truth”. Although I have read several non-fiction books by the great ex-Python comedian and renown traveller, I have only read one other novel by him (Hemingway’s Chair), however since I thoroughly enjoyed that one, I hope that this is equally entertaining. The Truth according to Goodreads…“Keith Mabbut is at a crossroads in his life. A professional writer of some repute, he has reached the age of fifty-six with nothing resembling the success of his two great literary heroes, George Orwell and Albert Camus. When he is offered the opportunity of a lifetime—to write the biography of the elusive Hamish Melville, a widely respected and highly influential activist and humanitarian—he seizes the chance to write something meaningful. His search to find out the real story behind the legend takes Mabbut to the lush landscapes and environmental hotspots of India. The more he discovers about Melville, the more he admires him—and the more he connects with an idealist who wanted to make a difference. But is his quarry really who he claims to be? As Keith discovers, the truth can be whatever we make it. “ Goodreads only rates this 1998 novel at around 3.5 out of 5 although it had good reviews from The Spectator, The Financial Times and Time Out magazine.

The remainder of my books, three of them, were bought from For the Love of Books. The first of which is a book that I have been meaning to read for a number of years. Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came to life from a drunken idea while hitchhiking around Europe in 1971. Originally a radio comedy broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1978, it was later adapted to other formats, including stage shows, novels, comic books, a 1981 TV series, a 1984 video game, and 2005 feature film. My version of the novel was published in 2005 and includes a tie in with the movie…..showing several still photos from the movie. As the back cover of the book says “One Thursday lunchtime the Earth gets unexpectedly demolished to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. For Arthur Dent, who has only just had his house demolished that morning, this seems already to be more than he can cope with. Sadly, however, the weekend has only just begun, and the galaxy is a very strange and startling place.” Over a million readers on Goodreads rate the book at 4.22 out of 5 and add…“Seconds before the Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for the revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who, for the last fifteen years, has been posing as an out-of-work actor.”

So after 3 what may be called humerous books…..we come to a couple of books with more serious undertones. Jonathan Raban’s Surveillance although a novel, tackles the problems of real life threats to our privacy. The Times says “Post 9/11, everyone watches and is being watched…..in Raban’s black and brilliant portrait of his adopted city, all kinds of sinister forces filter and manipulate the truth. A wonderfully ironic, disturbing take on the un-privacy of modern life.” The Spectator adds…“Raban’s book should certainly be required reading. Of all the 9/11 books so far, Surveillance is perhaps the most disturbing because it offers scant comfort and no certainties.” Set in Seattle it follows fictional journalist Lucy Bengstrom on a particularly invasive assignment.

My final book is Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars (the World is a Battlefield). This is a non-fiction book in which Jeremy Scahill tells the story about how the USA came to embrace assassination as a central part of its national security policy – and to pronounce the entire world as a battlefield. No country is safe from the wrath of the USA. Although this was ramped up after 9/11, the roots of the story by far predate the day when the Twin Towers fell. The book tells of the expansion of covert US wars, the abuse of executive privilege and state secrets, the embrace of unaccountable elite military units that answer only to the White House and the use of drones to murder civilians…..some of them American citizens. The blurb on Goodreads states “Funded through black budgets, Special Operations Forces conduct missions in denied areas, engage in targeted killings, snatch and grab individuals and direct drone, AC-130 and cruise missile strikes. While the Bush administration deployed these ghost militias, President Barack Obama has expanded their operations and given them new scope and legitimacy. Dirty Wars follows the consequences of the declaration that “the world is a battlefield,” as Scahill uncovers the most important foreign policy story of our time. From Afghanistan to Yemen, Somalia and beyond, Scahill reports from the frontlines in this high-stakes investigation and explores the depths of America’s global killing machine. He goes beneath the surface of these covert wars, conducted in the shadows, outside the range of the press, without effective congressional oversight or public debate. And, based on unprecedented access, Scahill tells the chilling story of an American citizen marked for assassination by his own government.” Ironically back in 2012 when speaking in Israel, President Obama said “No country on Earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” And yet that is exactly what American foreign policy is. It sends missiles and bombs raining down on countries all around the world in the supposed ‘defence of American lives’. What double edged bullshit is that? And because they have so much power in the UN Security Council they get away with it every time. Any other nations leader would be brought before a tribunal on charges of war crimes…..not the American President, no matter who he is. I am very much looking forward to reading this book.

If any of you have already read any of these books, please let me know your take on them. Were they good, bad, indifferent reads? As usual your comments, shares, likes are appreciated and thank you for reading my posts.

Black Summer – Yes folks it’s a quick plug for the ZOMBIES!!

As I mentioned in my last post, which was about the post-apocalyptic novel “Earth Abides”, (which incidentally has nothing to do with Zombies) …I love tales about Zombies…..be it books, movies or TV series. Black Summer (released April 2019) is a “made for Netflix” series about the Zombie Apocalypse and although there has only been one series so far, (I believe another is in the pipeline…watch this space!) I think it’s great. It was inspired by and is produced by the same company who created another series on Netflix called “Z Nation” …..in which someone mentioned the start of the Zombie Apocalypse as being the “Black Summer”, when the whole map of the USA suddenly turned black with Z’s.

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It’s not like the “Walking Dead” – with their shuffling Zombies that even granny with her walker would be nimble enough to dodge….nor is it like the voracious Zombies of “World War Z” who are so fast that world champion sprinter Usain Bolt would have trouble outrunning them. The Zombies on Black Summer move fast….but human fast, not super hero fast. The story begins just six weeks in from the outbreak of the Zombie Apocalypse and is the usual escape the Zombies by trying to reach an almost mythical “Safe Zone” road trip. You have to have your wits about you to survive, and each episode from start to finish gets the heart pumping. It’s definitely “on the edge of your seat” stuff. And it doesn’t pay to get too attached to any particular character…for Z-obvious reaZons. Give it a look if you get a chance. There are just 8 episodes in series one and as of yet series two has not been confirmed. It’s low budget with mainly B grade actors, but it’s a lot of fun, thrills and spills. The Official Trailer is below…..enjoy!

Earth Abides – an “end of the world as we know it” classic.

George R Stewart originally published “Earth Abides” in 1949, but it’s as readable and as prophetic today as it was then. This book is a CLASSIC (yes in big letters) – classic post-apocalyptic story. It deals with an end of the world as we know it situation – one that wipes out 99% of humankind – and follows, initially a lone survivor, and then a small group, who learn to depend on one another and to begin again. It’s not the literal end of the world – just the end of the world “as we know it”. We as humans have to adapt to change in order to survive.

I love a good dystopian novel/survival novel/even a good zombie (blood splattered) novel. And often-times I even envy the survivors – having a chance to start again with a clean slate – where hopefully they, and humankind as a whole, will not make as big a mess of things this time as they did the last time. Here there are no politicians, no corporations, no armies – doing the bidding of the political or corporate elites….just ordinary people with a will to survive. Earth Abides has no zombies, no gratuitous violence, and only implied sexual acts and either in spite of, or because of, this it is still a great story – of hopes, fears, strength and frailty of the human spirit, of quest, an adventure and a journey into an unknown future by learning from, and in some cases ignoring, the lessons of the past. But don’t get me wrong – there is death/murder and there are relationships and the usual relationship issues in this story.

This was one of the books I bought recently on my trip to the west coast of the USA. The story is based primarily in San Francisco (where I spent much of my time) and is a multi-generational epic. I highly recommend it. It’s not only about the quest for survival and a rebuilding (of a kind) of society. It makes you question things. To look at your own life and evaluate what’s important (the theoretical meat and potatoes of life) and what is merely gravy…trimmings… that are more there as a front to give the ‘right’ impression rather than having any real substance. It makes you look at the possibilities that a totally fresh start – either for humankind as a whole, or for ones self as an individual – could mean. Does a fresh start mean a clean break from the past or are there some things from the past worthy of carrying forward into a new future?

There are a couple of quotes, that may help in pushing a person to take the decision to make a fresh start, from the book, that I’d like to share with you. The first is “men go and come, but earth abides.” Which I think kind of puts our lives into perspective by which I mean that all our struggles and worries of today in our daily lives mean very little in the grand scheme of things. The worrisome things that keep us awake at night are not really worth the importance that we give them…..we live, we die, we become one with the earth…the whole ashes to ashes, dust to dust thing. The earth goes on regardless, so why not do what makes you happy? The second is “without courage there is only a slow dying, not life.” Sometimes you have to stand up – for either yourself, or for an ideal – even if it means swimming against the tide of public opinion. Live YOUR life, by your rules, not someone else’s.

It’s taken me almost 60 years to find out who I am, who I was, and who I want to be, and to figure out what sort of world I would like to live in – to be a part of…and what I can do to start to move me in the right direction. I am not an anarchist, but do believe that we have had a lot of pointless rules and regulations imposed upon us, by the people we elect to represent us. The same people who seem to think of new things to tax us for each day. We are being over regulated, our freedoms are being taken away (little by little in the hope that we don’t notice) and we are being taxed to death to finance the lifestyle of the rich and powerful. Sometimes I ask myself… would the end of the world as we know it be such bad thing?

As usual your comments and thought on this are appreciated.

“Goodreads” gives the book a 4 out of 5 and I’d certainly give it at least 4 out of 5 myself. They say “A disease of unparalleled destructive force has sprung up almost simultaneously in every corner of the globe, all but destroying the human race. One survivor, strangely immune to the effects of the epidemic, ventures forward to experience a world without man. What he ultimately discovers will prove far more astonishing than anything he’d either dreaded or hoped for.

San Francisco’s independent bookshops.

There are an amazing number and diversity of bookstores in San Francisco and during my recent visit I wanted to call into and browse books in as many of them as possible.

Prior to leaving my home in New Zealand I had a look on-line and made myself a list of around 40 bookshops, in the San Francisco area, to explore. However time limits, transport logistics and the risk of what of spending our entire holiday inside bookshops would do to my marriage, forced a compromise of sorts. As a result, what follows is a review of the shops that “we” visited (with a rating of each shop) and the books bough in each.

Our ratings are based on a number of things such as range of books, condition and price of stock, the layout of the shop (was it easy to get around/pleasing to the eye?), the welcome or lack of welcome we received from the staff, the helpfulness/knowledge of product of the staff, was there somewhere to sit and peruse a potential purchase and was sitting and perusing frowned upon or encouraged – to name but a few.

The first bookshop we visited in San Francisco was Christopher’s Books – about which I have already blogged in a post titled “Potrero Hill (and books and bookshops)”. However, Christopher’s Book shop and it’s owner were such a delight that I want to say again what a lovely shop it is, despite its small size it has a huge heart. Except for the fact that there is no space to sit and peruse and that most of the books are full retail price – although I did get 20% off my purchase because April was Poetry month and if you presented the shop with a piece of your own poetry, which I did, you qualified for a 20% discount – I would have given this shop a perfect score. 4.5 out of 5 is the most I can give mainly due to there being no seating area. An excellent shop, and friendly and knowledgeable owner, all the same.

Although technically not a book shop, certain branches of the San Francisco Library have sales areas for discarded books/over stocked books/public donated books. These rooms are run by volunteers who have little time for arranging the books in any kind of sequence so you’ll find best sellers mixed in with cook books, kids books in the middle of political history etc. It’s a mess – and the area that the books are sold is a very stark, plain concrete walled room with little space and the books on trestle tables. BUT the staff were pleasant and tried to be helpful AND the books were all a dollar each regardless of condition. Again this one was covered in the same blog post as Christopher’s Bookshop. A score of 2 out of 5 for value and nice manners of the helpful staff is the best I can manage here.

On a wander through the mission district on the trail of the colourful murals there we called into 3 bookshops. The first was Alley Cat Books at 3036 24th Street.

Inside Alley Cat Books – looking toward the front of the store.

This is a bookshop and art gallery combined. The gallery is in the back part of the bookshop and is worth a look. But we were here to check out their range of books, of which they had a good variety and a range of prices. They had a couple of tables with sale books on for the cost of just a few dollars. I bought two books from here – Jack Kerouac’s “The Town and The City” – this was the famous Beat writers debut novel released 7 years before the book that made Kerouac famous, “On the Road”. And James Baldwin’s “The Devil Finds Work” – which is one of Baldwin’s book-length essays. Baldwin wrote mainly about racial, sexual and class distinctions and his experiences of being a gay black man growing up and living in America. He was described by many as a genius. Each book cost me a little under $7 each on sale. There were a lot of interesting books on sale and I had to exercise restraint to keep it to just two purchases. Had I lived in the USA and didn’t have to bring my haul of books back to New Zealand in my suitcase I would have really stocked up here. Helpful sales girl behind the counter was available to help, but left us to browse in peace. Very nice store and there were chairs to sit and peruse the books should you feel the need. I’ll rate them 4 out of 5

Next along the way was Dog Eared Books – which is owned by the same people who have Alley Cat Books. (Below are two photos – one interior, one exterior of Dog Eared Books, which is at 900 Valencia Street).

Again a nice store with a good selection of new and used books, but due to already having a heavy backpack (2 books, lunch, extra sweat top, camera etc) and still a long walk ahead of us, I resisted the urge to splurge on more books here. There were a couple of hard cover photography books here that caught my eye, but I couldn’t justify the extra weight. There were a couple of chairs in a corner for perusing books, but both were occupied by homeless guys – who, despite smelling a little ripe and muttering to themselves, were harmless enough and the store owner was happy for them to sit and shelter for a while. Nice store and stock, but the staff didn’t seem interested in their customers so I will only rate them 3 out of 5.

Just one block further along is Borderlands Books at 866 Valencia Street.

Boarderlands specialise in Sci-fi books, fan-fiction and rare editions. Since Sci-fi isn’t really my thing and my wife can’t stand it, we didn’t hang around here for long. They had a good stock of books in good condition and the prices were reasonable. 3.5 out of 5.

A couple of days later we were in the Central Business District of San Francisco and on our way to lunch in Yerba Buena Gardens we called into Alexander Book Company at number 50 2nd Street.

We got a nice welcome from the staff there and set about exploring the shop. It’s set over 3 floors and is just brilliant. Upstairs are some very comfortable chairs for sitting and reading your potential purchases and we were left undisturbed to do just that, having selected several books between us from the ground floor tables and bookshelves. We can’t resist bargains and I think, from memory, that all our purchases here were reduced in price. I was remarkably restrained yet again and bought just 2 books.

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My first choice was Michael Sims “The Adventures of Henry Thoreau”. In keeping with my intentions to buy books by American writers – Sims, born in Crossville Tennessee is a noted writer of American non-fiction. In this book, he charts the life of Henry David Thoreau from being a rowdy adventurous child in the mold of Tom Sawyer, moving on to his time at Harvard University, the years spent living in a cabin by Walden Pond…..through to becoming an icon – one of America’s most influential writers, ardent environmentalist and proponent of nonviolent activism. I haven’t had time to read it yet, so it remains on my to be read list for now. Goodreads gave it a middle of the road 3.8, but I think it’s going to be a really good read.

My second book was actually a photography book – or a book of photographs – of one of my favourite cities in the world – Paris. “Forever Paris”- subtitled “Timeless Photographs of the City of Lights”, is produced by Flammarion. The photos are all black and white and cover the period from 1930 through to 1970. Some are of everyday people and street scenes, others are iconic Paris landmarks, such as the Eifel Tower and there are even stars of the stage, screen and art world, such as Audrey Hepburn, Josephine Baker, Nina Simone and Salvador Dali. This book is a winner, as far as I am concerned, for anyone interested in Paris, black and white photography, street photography and/or celebrity photos. And as it was reduced to just $4.50 it was more than just a bargain.

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My wife outdid me at Alexander’s. Her haul of 5 books made my 2 look insignificant. For anyone interested in the environment and climate change, Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth (which was released as both a book and a movie documentary in 2006) was a landmark book as it put climate change in layman’s terms for us all to understand. The follow up book to this – An Inconvenient Sequel TRUTH TO POWER – was the first of my wife’s book haul from Alexander’s. It’s sold as an “action handbook – to learn the science, find your voice and help solve the climate crisis”. Again written in laymen’s terms with accompanying diagrams and photographs, I will be borrowing it from my wife, at some point, as I believe that in these times of unusual weather phenomena, extremes of weather and rising sea levels, it pays to be informed.

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“Her Brilliant Career” (written in 2013), subtitled Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, by Rachel Cooke. To quote the blurb on the back cover “Rachel Cooke goes back in time to offer an entertaining and Iconoclastic look at ten women in the 1950’s – pioneers whose professional careers and complicated private lives helped to create the opportunities available to today’s women. These intrepid individuals – among them a film director, a cook, an architect, an editor, an archaeologist, and a race car driver – left the house, discovered the bliss of a career, and ushered in the era of the working woman.” Just having a flick through and browsing some of the stories in this book, I may have to borrow this one too. It looks quite interesting.

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Geoff Colvin’s book “Humans Are Underrated” – “What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will – takes a look at what’s happening in the automated workplace. The unavoidable question – will millions of people lose out, unable to best the machine? – is increasingly dominating business, education, economics and policy. Doris Kearns Goodwin (Pulitzer Prize-winning historian) says of the book “Beautifully written and deeply researched, Humans Are Underrated is one of the most creative and insightful leadership books I have ever read. It is a triumph!” Again, just flicking through a few pages and reading random paragraphs, it seems like an interesting and thought provoking book and YET ANOTHER to add to my to be read list.

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“Reality is Not What it Seems” – The Journey to Quantum Gravity – is another of the books my wife selected. This one written by Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. “What??? ” I hear you ask…..”sounds like a real page turner!” But Rovelli’s earlier book “Seven Lessons on Physics” was actually a best seller and was translated into more than forty languages, so there must be something to it. Add to this, that one of our sons is a Harvard trained theoretical physicist – and this makes it a must read book for both of us…..so we can keep up with what our son usually talks to us about, instead of it going right over our heads – as usual. Do time and space really exist? What exactly is reality? Rovelli tells us how our understanding of reality has changed over the centuries and how physicists think about the structure of the universe today. He takes us on a wondrous journey from Democritus to Albert Einstein, from Michael Faraday to gravitational waves and from classical physics to his own latest work in quantum gravity. We’re invited into a world where space breaks up into tiny grains, time disappears at the smallest scales, and black holes are waiting to explode – a vast universe still largely undiscovered. So that’s four from four of my wife’s selections that I will have to add to my reading list. Not so however with her final choice.

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Reza Aslan’s 2017 offering is GOD: A Human History and is about the history of religion and how we as humans over the centuries have given our God – what ever our religion – human traits and emotions. Aslan says we should stop doing this. It is a book that will make us reflect and reconsider our assumptions about God and religion. He says “We bestow upon God not just all that is good in human nature – our compassion, our thirst for justice – but all that is bad in it: our greed, our bigotry, our penchant for violence. All these qualities inform our religions, cultures and governments.” My wife has an interest in religions and spirituality so will probably find it interesting. For me, the only redeeming quality of this hard cover book is that it is a first edition and the author has signed it – and so added to the collectability value.

So that brings to a close our purchases from Alexanders Books – a shop definitely worth a visit. Due to the great range of books, friendly staff, pleasant layout and great seating area I give them 4.75 out of 5.

I was hoping to go to an author reading event at Green Apple Books, but regrettably I never got to set foot in their main store at 506 Clement Street which has over 60,000 new books and over 100,000 second hand books on its shelves. We did however manage to call into their second, albeit smaller shop – Green Apple Books on the Park – on the southern edge of Golden Gate Park at 1231 9th Ave.

A smallish, long and narrow shop with knowledgeable staff, a good selection of fiction and nonfiction and a chair here and there on which to sit and read. The sale books were particularly worthy of our attention. Another 4 out of 5 rating from me.

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From here, my wife bought a beautiful large hard cover book about American Charcuterie put out by Olympia Provisions of Portland Oregon. We had only recently visited Portland a few days earlier and indeed the charcuterie – quality meats – on sale there were second to none. It has some lovely photos and simple to follow recipes and instructions on how to make, cure, preserve, cut and serve meats that will be the envy of your friends. The cover price of $40 US Dollars had been reduced to a bargain price of $15 – it would have been a crime not to buy it. I will be writing a separate post covering our weekend trip to Portland all about the quality food, drink and of course Powell’s City of Books.

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My purchase – yes, just the one – was again in keeping with my quest for books by local writers. Dave Eggers – writer, editor, publisher and philanthropist – although born in Boston, now lives and writes in San Francisco, so his nonfiction book “Zeitoun” which follows the fate of a couple caught in between two of America’s worst policy disasters: the war on terror and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, was an apt choice. Timothy Egan of the New York Times Book Review wrote – “Imagine Charles Dickens, his sentimentality in check but his journalistic eyes wide open, roaming New Orleans after it was buried by Hurricane Katrina….suspense blended with just enough information to stoke reader outrage and what is likely to be a typical response: How could this happen in America?….Fifty years from now, when people want to know what happened to this once-great city during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun.”

A book shop that we visited but didn’t buy anything was the Castro District branch of Dog Eared Books. Since we were passing yet another San Francisco book store we felt we just had to go in for a look, but by this point in our trip we were totally “booked out” having reached maximum weight for both our suitcases. The shop was well laid out and there were the usual sale tables. There was also a crate of free books just outside the door of the shop. Back inside, and this being the Castro District, the subject matter was slanted toward the predominantly gay/lesbian/transsexual clientele with the largest collection of material by LGBT writers that I never knew existed. There were also some rather explicit photography books and other picture books that I think I may have had problems getting through New Zealand customs….another reason not to buy. Some of the books would have made interesting reading of that I have no doubt. The shop itself was small, but well laid out. Due to the limited subject matter, the fact that the rainbow coloured plastic strips across the doorway made it look like a rather cheap ‘Adult’ shop, and the rather sullen girl behind the counter, the most I can rate this store is 2.5 out of 5. Definitely worth calling in for curiosity sake though.

No post about independent bookstores of San Francisco could be considered any where complete without a mention of, and a visit to, City Lights Bookstore. Home of the beat generation of writers, this shop has been around since the 1950’s and is probably the most famous book store in the whole of California. Original co-owner – poet, publisher, painter and social activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti still calls into the store every now and then, but sadly wasn’t there when we called in. It’s a pity really as his presence may have made the staff a little more approachable and less “up themselves”. Sometimes working in a famous store goes to people’s heads. The shop is a warren of rooms and bookshelves but very pleasant to walk around and browse the huge range of subject matter. There are a lot of “social issue” type books, in line with Ferlinghetti’s freedom of speech/freedom of expression mantra. The making one of the upstairs rooms exclusively for poetry, complete with a desk and a couple of chairs is a welcome refuge in which to read in peace. My rating of 3.5 out of 5 reflects the attitude of the staff and lowers what would have been a much higher score.

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Despite the vast and interesting range of books I limited myself to a single book purchase here – Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s modern classic “A Coney Island of the Mind”, a collection of what is recognised as some of his best poems written during a short period in the 1950’s.

And that brings our little trip around a few of the many San Francisco Independent Book Shops to a close.

The Man in the High Castle – a book within a book and more than meets the eye.

I have just returned from a visit to the Pacific north-west – mainly staying in San Francisco, along with a side trip to Portland, Oregon.

A couple of things that I wanted to do while in this area was to firstly visit a number of independent book stores, and secondly buy books either by writers who live in the area, or books with stories set in the area. And so, during a visit to Powell’s City of Books in Portland (about which I will blog in detail in another post, shortly), I bought a second hand copy of Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” which is set, for the most part, in San Francisco. BUT it’s a very different San Francisco to that of today.

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Set in 1962, just 7 years after the end of WW2, it offers up an alternative ending to the second world war. In this book the war was won by the Axis – Japan and Germany (with the Italians in tow). The west coast of the USA is in the hands of the Japanese and the east coast is under German control. There is a slim buffer zone – kind of a neutral area – in the middle, down the Rocky Mountains, where American life is more or less business as usual. In San Francisco where much of the novel is set, American’s are allowed to live, work and run businesses, but very much under the eye of their superiors – Their Japanese masters.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot as it would spoil things for potential readers. So here is a brief summary.

The Japanese are clearly in control of American lives and businesses in San Francisco and the west coast – and have stamped Japanese values into the American culture and yet, perversely it seems, the Japanese also hold American memorabilia in very high regard – almost like priceless antiques. Part of the story follows a memorabilia shop owner who is constantly trying to find pieces to satisfy the whims of his high ranking Japanese clients. This is a world where a Mickey Mouse watch is a sought after item.

As well as the memorabilia man, the novel follows a number of other lives and reveals that some of them have been reading a book – banned on the east coast by the Germans, yet a blind eye is turned to it on the west coast by the Japanese rulers…..some of whom also read and have copies of the book. The controversial book in question is called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” – a book that gives an alternative and, for some, unthinkable ending to WW2 where the USA, Britain and their minor allies are the victors. Whilst the Japanese are intrigued by the book, the Germans absolutely hate it, and it’s author, Hawthorne Abendsen, is believed to be in hiding, in fear for his life, in a fortress like building somewhere in the Rocky Mountains…hence the title of Dick’s book – The Man in the High Castle.

The story indicates that although the Germans and Japanese were on the same side during the war, there is a certain amount of political friction between the two over their control of the former USA. This “friction” boils over into violence…..BUT, I’ll say no more about that. Read the book.

Philip K. Dick is mostly known for his Sci-fi books. This is more of an alternative history/thriller and, to be honest with you, is the only one of his books that I have read…so far. It has had a lot of hype, many people love this book and I have a liking for a dystopian story. It is, however, a strange book for me to try to give a rating to. On the one hand I found the idea of the Japanese/German victory and control of the USA quite fascinating. AND I thought that the premise of the other book – The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – with it’s real ending of the war was a nice twist of irony.

Dick starts off slowly focusing on the every day lives of the main characters and builds things up nicely for a big ending….starting very slowly, almost boringly slowly, and gradually adding action and tension. I kept looking at how many pages there were left and thinking that he wasn’t leaving a lot of time for the big finish. BUT I found the ending to be a bit of an anti-climax and the whole thing left me feeling quite flat.

As a result I could only give it a 3 out of 5. I’d say it’s worth a read just to see what all the hype is about.

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If you like the idea behind an Axis victory, but like a little more action and thrills, I’d recommend James Herbert’s book “48” – which is set in a post war London where Hitler has been victorious by using a biological weapon which targets specific blood groups. It follows one mans survival story.

Interestingly, Goodreads give The Man in the High Castle a rating of 3.63 and Herbert’s “48”, which I felt was a far superior story, rates only slightly higher on 3.75

As usual – thank you for reading – your comments and shares are always appreciated. AND please remember to support your local book sellers.