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.

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My Top 10 – Travel Books.

world map

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.