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.

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The Lost Pages – a novel by Marija Pericic

This novel is about the relationship between Max Brod and Franz Kafka. I hate to be cruel to any writer, but in this book’s case…in my opinion the pages should have remained lost.

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Although the premise of the book was a bold one, I believe that writers are always going to be on very thin ice when it comes to writing a fictitious story about 2 people who existed in real life, knew one another and were friends. Mixing fact with fiction is a dangerous thing to do. To then, as Pericic attempts to do in her novel, write a story which insinuates that Max Brod was mentally unhinged and may have actually killed Kafka by putting a pillow over his face, because he was jealous of the man both physically and intellectually – which is, if history is to be believed, a complete about face of facts – makes the book as President Trump likes to say “Fake News!”

No, I haven’t missed the point that it is a novel and therefore a work of fiction, but I found nothing redeeming at all in this story. The characters were more like caricatures, the writer insinuated conflict where there was none, the plot was frustrating to say the least and the dialogue was not believable. Brod’s character was so insecure, self pitying, jealous and full of doubt about every aspect of his life – including his relationships with other people and the quality of his own work – that I wanted to either strangle him or, alternatively strangle, Pericic.

In “the Lost Pages” novel, Brod does everything he can to keep Kafka’s work from being published, and yet we all know that it was Brod, during Kafka’s lifetime, who did everything in his power to get Kafka’s work into print and, after Kafka’s death, it was Brod, who compiled/edited Kafka’s work and in some cases even completed unfinished work in order to get it published and out into the public arena.

About the only thing that Pericic didn’t try to twist was that Kafka worked for a time in an insurance office and Brod for the Post Office. Otherwise the rest of the story was quite tortuous to read.

Pericic insinuates that Brod, although an accomplished writer before he met Kafka was, after meeting Kafka, so insecure about his own abilities that he could never write anything notable thereafter. That Brod went on to publish 83 titles seems to have escaped her. Again, YES I know it’s a work of fiction, but I like fiction to entertain me….not to frustrate and annoy me.

However, the book won The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award and others on “Goodreads” (where it rates 3.5 starts out of 5) have reacted positively to the story – for example “From the very beginning, I was drawn to the vulnerability and fragility of her protagonist, the anguish of an artist who never feels good enough, who is eaten up by his own insecurities, and whose low self opinion is sorrowful enough that we forgive him the gravest of errors against others.” AND “A clever weaving of fact and fiction, I was left wishing for an Author’s Note to disentangle the threads. Powerful and compelling, this is easy to read and hard to forget.” – Sadly for me, I wish I could forget it….and quickly. Had she written it about 2 fictitious people instead of real people it may have been marginally more readable.

Not a book that I would recommend to a friend – I would even balk at recommending it to an enemy.

Christmas is over for another year…

I’m not going to go into depth about what I do or don’t believe in about Christmas…..except of course that Santa really does exist….(cough cough). Christmas is a magical time of you have little kids to share that magic with……..otherwise, it does all seem to be a lot of work for one day of stuffing our faces and damaging our livers.

At our home, in the build up to Christmas, my wife had reeled off a list of things that “needed to be done before Christmas” and we sweated and toiled in order to get most of them done before the big day. We live in New Zealand so Christmas falls in our summer-time meaning that usually we can bask in sunshine with temperatures in the high 20’s or low 30’s Celsius. Christmas lunch is taken in the garden…..usually…..which is why a lot of the tasks tended to centre around the garden and lawns – making everything as neat as a pin and putting up an awning for a sun-shade and of course fairy lights – although with it being a lunch time feast, no one will see the lights against the bright daylight. BUT they were on the list so had to be put up and switched on.

So after a week of hard work and fraying tempers, completing our garden tasks, of course it absolutely poured down the day before Christmas and on the day itself. Oh JOY! As the front lawn gradually became a shallow lake, we dined inside and it was a bit of a crush squeezing 11 around the tables in the dining room. We had to arrange the tables diagonally – corner to corner – in order to fit everyone and everything in, as a rather large Christmas tree occupied much of one side of the room.

We all ate more than we should – naturally. AND one or two of “us” definitely drank more than was sensible….but we survived the day.

Honestly – next year I wouldn’t mind just disappearing to a Pacific island for the week instead – to chill out and recharge the batteries. My wife even suggested flying to Norway for Christmas…..about as far as you can get from NZ – where we would be completely off the radar….not to mention freezing cold.

It’s now 2 days later – the 27th and finally I am kicking back, chilling out. I’ve just had a coffee with a large chunk of Christmas cake and am contemplating either opening a beer…..or finishing off one of the many bottles of wine that were opened and left unfinished on Christmas day. Why do people do that? Why open a new bottle when there is already another one of exactly the same wine already opened and has only one glassful missing. Does anyone else find that frustrating or is it just me?

Anyhow…getting back to chilling out – I’m reading a book put together by a lady called Penelope Rowlands of 32 essays / short stories by 32 different writers, of a variety of nationalities, who have all lived, or been seduced to stay longer than they should have, in the European City of Lights – Paris. It’s called “Paris was Ours” and I picked it up second hand. It’s in very good condition and I was drawn to the book by the beautiful moody black and white photo on the front of a dimly lit, rainy street with people walking -mostly wearing raincoats and carrying umbrellas – lots of shadows but also reflections and rain spattered glowing pavements. By reading the inside back cover of the book it appears that the photo is from flickr by a Julien Brachhammer. Who-ever you are Julien, I love the photo.

Awesome photo on the cover and an interesting and entertaining read inside.

Inside the book the essays range from 3 pages long up to a maximum of around 16 or 17 pages, so it’s very easy to pick up and put down when you have spare moments…..or you can sit and binge read the essays – much like I was trying to do until I had the urge to share my experience of the book with you all – on here…WordPress.

All of the writers had been seduced by “the city of love” and all or almost all profess to still love it although some also claimed to have a love/hate relationship with a city that they found both passionately alluring, yet also one that theft them feeling lonely and blue. As one writer put it “Paris is a good place to be young and melancholy.” Another says “Paris steals in on you like fog.” Others refer to it as “the world capital of memory and desire” or insist that they were seduced by …”that siren, Paris.” I just love all these quotes – most are so poetic and I wished that I had written them first.

But living in Paris even for a short time – as a resident rather than a tourist – has been beneficial to the inner writer in all these essayists. As one put it “to be a writer you MUST come back to Paris.”

In her introduction to the book, the editor Penelope Rowlands speaks for most of the writers in this enthralling collection when she professes, “We hated Paris and loved it all at once.”

As writer and journalist Walter Wells wrote in his essay “I knew already that living in Paris would not be like visiting Paris, but I hadn’t appreciated what that really meant.” OR as Marcelle Clements attested – “Paris is a great place to fall in love, to eat, drink, and be merry. But it’s also the perfect city in which to be depressed or, even better, melancholy……You don’t have to be French to smoke a Gitane and notice the falling leaves drifting by your window.”

More than half of the essays have never appeared in any other publications and were written especially for this book. Some are well known writers, others – if you’re like me – you will never have heard of before, but all are intrepid men and women writing about their personal encounters with a magical yet uncompromising place – one that changes them indelibly and will stay with them forever – PARIS!

Most of these essays left me wanting to read more by each writer – to delve deeper into their backgrounds – and of course made me yearn to live for a year or more in that seductive city of lights, love and melancholy.

I’m not really a giver of stars to recommend books, as a book is a very subjective thing – what I love – you may hate. BUT if pushed….I would give this at least 4 out of 5.

Never judge a book by its cover…

I bought a few books…..well 16 actually….at the recent “Friends of the Library” book sale. Our local library had a stack of discarded books to get rid of so a book sale was the order of the day. Only NZ 50 cents per book. So I grabbed a few bargains –  having only a quick look at the covers and thinking “yep I’ll have that one…..and that….and that”.

One such book was “Nightscape” by David Morrell.  I have read a lot of his books in the past and mostly they are of the espionage/assassin genre. The first 3 books of his I read were “The Brotherhood of the Rose”, “The Fraternity of the Stone” and “The League of Night and Fog”. All were brilliant books predominantly about assassins. Full of twists and turns, action and adventure, destruction and mayhem.  Morrell is probably most famous though for writing the Rambo novel “First Blood”. I have, since then, read many more of his books – all of them extremely well written and fast paced. He has a way of writing that propels you at speed to the very last page.

Anyhow I broke the cardinal rule about never judging a book by its cover and assumed from the moody night in the city shot on the front of the book that it would be more of the same (a story about assassins). WRONG! It’s actually a book of short stories. I cast aside my initial disappointment though, opened the book and started to read. I absolutely barrelled my way through the intro and 5 of the 8 stories in the first sitting. This guy writes nail biting assassin stories, but his short stories – none of which are about espionage or assassins – certainly had my eyes glued to the page.

The intro is about Morrell’s life as a child and his stormy relationship with his mother and his step-father. The step-dad was a complete arse by the way!

The short stories are a mixed bag of subjects ranging from “Remains To Be Seen” – about a trusted soldier being tasked with spiriting a crate (contents unknown) out of a beseiged city to finally deliver it to his Excellency, after having to change plans several times enroute……to one called “ELVIS 45” in which an English Lit professor decides to run a course of lectures about the culture of Elvis Presley – a very dramatic ending to that one!

All of the stories have “interesting endings” – so even if you are able to guess how a couple of the stories will turn out, there is enough intreague in how the story develops to keep you reading.

The blurb on the back of the book says ” By and large the kind of tales an author writes are metaphores for the scars in the nooks and crannies of his/her psyche. In David Morrell’s youth, thrillers and horror stories provided an escape from his nightmarish reality. Is it any wonder that, as an adult obsessed with being a writer, he has compulsively turned to the types of stories that provided an escape when he was a child? In his own words, perhaps he is eager to provide an escape for others. Or perhaps he is still trying to escape from his past.”

Written with a haunting emotional intensity and lightning pace that has made Morrell the master of action/suspense writing. The short story collection includes the short novel “Rio Grande Gothic” – and will leave you wanting more. It certainly has with me.

Two Outstanding Women Photographers

While I don’t want to get into a discussion (argument) about male versus female roles in the job market. There are some jobs better suited to one gender than the other. There are jobs however that can be equally well performed by either gender and yet the oportunities for women in that field are sadly and wrongly lacking.

Photography was (hopefully is no longer) one of those professions. Fifty years ago there were not many women excelling in the photographic field. It was without a doubt a man’s domain.

However I just want to point you toward a couple of books that show that women were not only the equivalent of men as photographers – they could also outshine many of their male counterparts. And I write this as a male who is a keen photographer and have been since childhood.

The two women I want to bring to your attention – firstly Eve Arnold, who was involved with the world famous Magnum Photography Agency as early as 1951, becoming a full member in 1957.  Flicking through her book All About Eve – I realise that I have seen many of these iconic images before, but never knew they were taken by a female photographer, nor did I appreciate the effort and skill that went into capturing some of those images. Being a female photographer actually worked to her advantage particularly when dealing with other females who were to be the subjects of her photographs. She had a wonderful way about her – her patience and her caring nature – helped to put her “models” at ease. To quote Eve herself “If a photographer cares about the people before the lens and is compassionate, much is given. It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument”.

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She photographed all sorts of people – children, labourers, movie stars and heads of state. Her more famous subjects included the likes of Marilyn Monroe – with whom she had a special understanding and gained an amazing insight into her personal life, Paul Newman, Malcolm X, jazz entertainer Josephine Baker, the Eisenhowers etc. BUT she also photographed poverty and the down trodden. To quote from the book….“She produced picture assignments for magazines internationally, published books and exhibited worldwide. A blend of curiosity, discipline and moral courage would characterise her career which never settled for cliches or stereotypes”.

She was born in the USA and much of her early work takes place there, but after 1962 when she went to live in England, her photography was dominated by overseas projects particularly in China and she also photographed behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ in the USSR in the 1960`s.

The book was put together to celebrate Eve’s work on her 100th birthday. She died shortly after. (1912 – 2012).

The second photographer unlike Eve Arnold enjoyed no publicity of her work during her lifetime. In fact, very little is known of her life and yet she produced thousands of photographs.

In the book Vivian Maier – Street Photographer we are brought into Vivian`s world thanks to Historian, John Maloof who came into possession of several boxes of her prints, negatives and undeveloped film from an auction of stored property.

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All we get to know about Vivian is that she spent her life as a nanny to various children and part of her time was spent, camera in hand walking the streets and taking photos of anything that caught her eye…..sometimes with the children she was minding in tow.

As Geoff Dyer says on the back of her book “Vivian Maier represents an extreme instance of posthumous discovery; of someone who exists entirely in terms of what she saw. Not only was she entirely unknown in the photographic world, hardly anyone seemed to know that she even took photographs“.

Her legacy is a remarkable record of life, not only in America, but in France and other countries she visited over a period of more than forty years. We probably wouldn’t even know what she looked like if it wasn’t for her penchant for taking her own portrait as a reflection in shop windows.

She used a Rolleiflex camera, shooting from chest level – looking down into the view-finder so most people failed to realise that they were being photographed. This made for some interesting candid photos.

As it says in the books foreward “A good street photographer must be possessed of many talents: an eye for detail, light and composition: impeccable timing: a populist or humanitarian outlook: and a tireless ability to shoot shoot shoot

Amazingly Vivian had all these qualities but was entirely self taught. It’s scary to think that this body of work only came to the public eye by chance…. AND we are richer for it.  I was very fortunate to see an exhibition of her photos when I was in France a couple of years ago.

Both these photographers produced an outstanding body of work and their books are worthy of a prominent place on anyone’s book case.

My Top 10 – Travel Books.

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I mentioned in an earlier post that I am a big fan of travel books. Travel guides, travelogues and books relating to TV travel shows.

This is my Top 10 list of travelogues currently on my bookshelves. All have been read and some are starting to get pretty old, but remain favourites.

My absolute favourite of all time…..and I’m going to cheat a little on this one. Is Bill Bryson’s “The Complete Notes” – It’s actually two books in one, comprising Notes from a Small Island (about travel in the UK) and Notes from a Big Country (about re-visiting the land of his birth – the USA, after 17 years of living in the UK). I simply love Bryson’s style of writing. He’ll give a half a dozen rather dry facts about a place and then pitch in a one-liner that reduces me to fits of giggles. He’s the sort of person who can get lost anywhere and wears the mantle of the “confused traveler” extremely well.  His travel books are always informative….and humorous ( amusing, funny, entertaining, comic, comical, chucklesome, witty, jocular, light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, wry, waggish, whimsical, playful – and other such synonyms). If you’ve never read Bryson – give him a go – you don’t know what you’re missing. BUT – word to the wise – stick with his travelogues, some of his other books, I feel, can be a little lacking.

I’m a huge fan of Michael Palin (former member of the Monty Python team) for his many TV travel series and accompanying travel books. Starting with “Around the World in 80 Days” – where he set off on a quest to replicate Phileas Fogg’s journey to travel right around the globe in only 80 days….not using planes. After that he went “Pole to Pole”  and “Full Circle”, before starting to specialize more in specific areas such as “Himalaya” and “Sahara”. The books of the series have all been worthy of space on my “Travel Bookcase”. Again, like Bryson, Palin delivers facts accompanied by wit. He writes well and is a really nice guy….coming from Sheffield (my place of birth) gains him extra points. The books are also well illustrated with beautiful photos – mostly taken by photographer Basil Pao. Actually Basil’s own book “Inside Sahara” is also well worth a look and has extra photos from Palin’s Sahara trip which were deemed worthy of their own book.

Next is a book given to me in 1986 when I backpacked coast to coast across the USA…and back again. Tina Winn who gave us a roof over our heads at Newport Beach, California, was the lady in question and she gave a book to me and a different one to my travel companion Chris. Mine was “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat-Moon, about a journey by van along the blue highways (back roads) that link up all the little towns and settlements across the USA. It was his curiousity to see “the Real America” that took him on the trip of a lifetime….where he meets and mostly brings out the best in people along the way. I don’t have the original copy given to me by Tina (I had to buy a new one) because I swapped it with Chris so I could read his book…..which comes in as my fourth pick.

John Steinbeck – “Travels with Charley” – subtitled “In Search of America”. At the age of sixty, John Steinbeck and his French Poodle “Charley” climbed in to a camper van and took off on a coast to coast and back again adventure. I have read some of Steinbecks novels, but this true story of his travels – giving not only details of the trip and what they saw and did, but also wry observations about what it is to be an American – I think is his best work. And having gone coast to coast and back myself I could relate to much of what’s in the book.

A purchase from a second hand book shop….Pete McCarthy’s hilarious “The Road To McCarthy” – should probably be higher on my list if I’m honest about it. This man is a very funny guy – or i should say WAS, as he died in 2004 after a struggle against cancer. The book takes Pete and us around the world in search of McCarthy – or to be more exact in search of quirky places around the world with odd links to Ireland, the Irish and the McCarthy name. It’s a follow up book to his highly successful “McCarthy’s Bar” – in which Pete McCarthy makes a simple rule – never pass a bar with your name on it. He was an incredibly talented writer and humorist and having only recently discovered his books I was devastated to learn that he’d died. Such a waste of talent – a sad loss……but great books.

Kevin McCloud’s “Grand Tour of Europe” – another book of a TV series (this one on the UK’s Channel 4). The Grand Tour was a rite of passage for the Nobles, minor nobility and upper class wealthy young men which began in the 17th and 18th century. These hedonists cut a swathe across europe, visiting all the fashionable great cities, ruins and architectural marvels…..and partaking in the delights offered by bath houses, bars and brothels along the way. It was an oportunity for these wealthy young men to educate themselves in the world of european art and literature…..and if they didn’t take precautions – to also contract syphilis. McCloud takes us along for the ride and shares snippets of knowledge with us – the audience and readership….some of it carnal – as we visit the culture and history of Europe.

Paul Theroux – “The GreatRailway Bazaar” is my next choice. Unfortunately I only have the Penguin paperback edition, I believe that there is also a large format hard cover book complete with accompanying photos…..quite magnificent photos I hasten to add…by Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. Having said that, Theroux’s text is extremely entertaining, amusing (in places) and informative. He takes us on a four month journey, on a series of trains from London, across Europe, the middle east and Asia, eloquently describing the people and places along the journey. It’s a well crafted book which as well as being a travelogue also discusses subjects such as poverty, ignorance, colonialism and (being an American writer) American Imperialism. It certainly inspires this reader to hop on board and “slow travel” across the continents.

Rolf Potts book “Vagabonding” is a book that I wished I had discovered years ago rather than more recently. It’s a “how to” guide to the art of long-term world travel. Most people, for some reason, see the idea of long-term travel to exotic out of the way lands as being either the thing of dreams, or as requiring oodles of money squirreled away in the bank. Potts shows us that neither of these are true. With common sense advice he walks us through the steps we need to take to make living the dream a reality. And it’s not rocket science!

Hap Cameron’s – “Hap Working the World” – is a book that show’s us just how far a simple thought can take us. In 2003 New Zealander Hap Cameron had an idea that he’d like to live and work on every continent before he turned thirty. Eight years later with all seven continents ticked off, he’s experienced more than most of us will in a lifetime  -including being locked in a jail cell in the USA and almost killed by gangsters in Africa. Of course it’s a “coming of age book” – a book that not only takes us on Hap’s journey of discovery of the seven continents, but also his journey of self discovery and of meeting the girl of his dreams. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and by the end I really did care what happened to Hap. It’s fun and it’s an adventure.

For my final choice – it’s more of a choice of writer rather than of a specific book. I’ve read a few of Christina Dodwell‘s books….starting with “An Explorer’s Handbook”. She is one impressive woman. I first came to know of her on a TV series called River Journeys where she tackled the white water of Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River….and allowed tribesmen to cut the diamond shaped pattern of the skin of the crocodile into her arm – to bring her good luck and protection. She puts the intrepid into Intrepid Explorer. She spent 3 years, traveling twenty thousand miles in Africa – by any means including horse, elephant and camel plus 7 weeks in a dug out canoe on the Congo river. Any of her books are a thrill to read. Maybe her first book “Travels with Fortune” about that African adventure would be the one to start with.

That complete’s my Top Ten. It was a difficult choice and I’ve tried to pick a cross section of the books that I hold dear. There were a few others that could easily have replaced others listed above…..like I said, it was a hard choice.

Just as a P.S. and because I feel bad about missing him off my list…..If you’re a Francophile, I recommend any of John Baxter’s books about Paris. Look him up on line.

Random Book review number two – Longitude by Dava Sobel.

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The second of the books on my Random Book pile is Longitude by Dava Sobel. Again this is not the sort of book I would usually select for my reading material and again I was surprised at how interesting it was.

Dava Sobel is an American writer who writes books primarily about science related subjects. Longitude was first published in 1995 and has since – in 1998 –  been made into a TV series. There has been at least two re-prints, the last one in 2005.

So, what is the book about?

We all know that there are lines of latitude and longitude on maps – this is the story of the race to acurately measure where ships were longitudinaly….before we had the luxury of satelite navigation systems.

Back in the day…..a phrase incidentally that makes me grind my teeth, but I’ll use it anyway….back in the day, ships crews navigated by the stars and used sextants along with a compass to ascertain their position on the map. This was all well and good when land was still in sight and on clear nights, but when the sky was overcast or ships were surrounded by fog, they had to use a best guess system of estimating their speed, the direction of the tide and approximate time travelled. They were sometimes hundreds of miles off course.

Many ships floundered on rocks and reefs and many lives were lost….not to mention precious cargo.

The race was on to find a better way to find an exact position on the map and a cash prize was offered for the person who could determine longitude at sea within a very small margin of error.

What it came down to was a group of scientists and the science/mathematical based community in one corner and a lone clock maker from Yorkshire called John Harrison in the other.

I’ll not tell you who wins, but there are a series of twists and turns, deceit and rule changes along the way to the prize.

It`s actually a fascinating story about a subject that, these days, we barely even think about. The answer to the longitude problem was complex and quite a brilliant achievement – that took over 40 years of struggle and commitment to solve.

Originally written as a magazine article for Harvard Magazine, the publisher asked Dava to expand it into a book for which she was paid a mere $7000 advance, which barely covered the cost of the research she did on the book. The book however was an outstanding success and made the best seller lists, as well as winning British Book of the Year in 1997 -much to her own and her publishers surprise – and cemented Dava into her own unique genre.

Definitely worth a read and I’ll give it 3 out of 5.
Continue reading “Random Book review number two – Longitude by Dava Sobel.”