After They Killed Our Father – Loung Ung

This book is the sequel to First They Killed My Father, a book about what happened in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge took power.  During this period she went from a relatively wealthy and comfortable life in Phnom Penh to living in primitive conditions in a rural village where her father was taken away to be killed and her mother and two of her sisters died.

“After” is about what happened next.  Ung, her eldest brother and his wife escaped to a Thai refugee camp and from there managed to get to Vermont USA.  From arrival in USA Ung’s book tells her own story in parallel with that of the sister who remained behind in Cambodia. In this way it shows the significant differences in the way the West live and the way people were forced to live in a less developed country in South-East Asia.

At times I had to stop and remind myself that these lives are being lived in the 1980s and 1990s! Reading Chou’s story it is hard for me to comprehend how people survive living with the uncertainty, scratching a living from land that can be deadly and this in an era of growth, development and plenty in the West.

I find it easier to comprehend Loung’s story.  I can imagine how disorienting it must have been moving to a place so culturally different and wanting desperately to fit in.  I can imagine the residual fear and anger over what happened in Cambodia and the luxury and pain of being able to feel it once she arrived in a place of safety.

Despite the differences in the sisters’ life experiences though this is also a book about having the drive and determination to achieve something and about not letting the past destroy the future.  I admire the Ung family for getting on and living life.  I am sure there are many former refugees and survivors of terrible regimes who have done similar.

As well as getting involved in the story I am also aware of finding out more about how thin the veneer of civilisation is and how quickly it can disappear.  Underpinning this is a sense of incomprehension and bemusement as to how, in an age of easy mass communication, a dictator can so take such a strong hold of a country and destroy its culture.  Dictatorship should be consigned to the history books.  Why isn’t it?


Stories of Famous Days – E S Brooks

This is another of the books that came out of my mammoth auction lot.  I pulled it out to read because the preface states “There never was a holiday but had its store of stories that might be told – if only the heroes and heroines thereof could find audience or opportunity.”  How could you not read a book that starts like that.

My best guess, based on the language, some of the stories and the binding, is that this book was originally published in the USA at the end of the 19th century. It is odd, quirky and interesting.

The book looks at the main high days and holidays in the calendar and tells a story or legend about each of them.  It starts with Christmas, continues with New Year’s Day, St Valentine’s Day, April Fool’s Day, May Day, Midsummer Eve, Independence Day, A Great Olympiad, Michaelmas, Hallow E’en and finishes with Thanksgiving Day.

My favourite of the stories is the April Fool played on King John by the residents of Gotham whilst he was travelling to Nottingham.

I loved the fact that all of the stories and legends were new to me.  It made reading the book a bit of an adventure.

The language also made it a bit of an adventure.  It took time to get use to the odd phrasing and obsolete words.  Despite being considerably newer I find it easier to read Shakespeare than this.  It might be that it is written in American archaic language so the sentence structure and cadence are unfamiliar too.

Not all of the stories are interesting and a couple are downright dull for children, which is who this book is aimed at.  However, I plan to pass the book onto my eldest honorary great-niece, aged 11, to see what she makes of it.

I’ll report back when I’ve heard from her.


Gorsky – Vesna Goldsworthy

I don’t actually remember buying this book but it turned up at the bottom of a pile when I was moving the heap of books waiting to be read from the side of the sofa onto the revolving bookcase I bought in an effort to tidy the sitting room.

I can see why I might have bought it.  It has an attractive cover, the blurb from Michael Frayn is good and the synopsis inside the front cover sounds interesting.

It was also an easy and quite interesting afternoons read but…

Essentially the book is a direct lift of The Great Gatsby relocated to London in the Noughties and with Russian oligarchs rather than the new/old money Americans of the source novel.

The narrator, rather than being a bond salesman, works in a bookshop and is tasked by Gorsky, the Gatsby equivalent, with creating the perfect library to impress the love of his life, Natalia Summerscale.

As he gets drawn into their lives Nick, the narrator, describes the life of the super-rich in the 21st century.

As I said earlier, an easy and quite enjoyable book but…

Knowing The Great Gatsby, and enjoying F Scott Fitzgerald’s work, this book is a blatant rip off of it and a pale imitation.  Fitzgerald managed to make his characters believable as human beings as well as portraying the emptiness of their lives and souls.  Goldsworthy just doesn’t breathe life into her characters and I didn’t care about the injustice of the wrong man getting killed.

Given a choice I’d spend the afternoon with Gatsby not Gorsky.

The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

I have to admit that almost everything I knew about this book before reading it was garnered from reading Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women.

I vaguely knew it was a religious allegory and I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading it if I hadn’t acquired a copy in a box of books I bought at an auction.  And I wouldn’t have bothered reading it even then had I not been surprised by how slim a volume it was.

The book is in two parts, which I didn’t know from my Little Women reading.  The first part follows the journey of Christian who realises his life in his city is empty and meaningless and that he needs to change.  He is scoffed at by his family, friends and neighbours but continues anyway.  On his journey he gets sidetracked and waylaid and is also helped by others to find his way again and to reach the promised land.

The second part is about Christian’s wife and children who, realising the error of their ways, decide to follow in his footsteps and redeem themselves.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.  I am not a religious person but I didn’t find the book too preachy.  I feel the message about striving to be better people is about more than organised religion and is more about the human condition.

The language is a little archaic to a 21st century ear, a bit like reading the language of the King James Bible, which might be a bit off-putting but you get a lot of story in 115 pages.

I enjoyed spotting the bits referenced in the March sister’s playing at Pilgrim’s Progress although these were much fewer than I had expected.

Would I recommend others to read this book?  Probably not, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend rushing out to buy it, although if a copy ever comes your way give it a go.

Slaying the Badger – Richard Moore

This is a book about the dual for the yellow jersey between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in the 1986 Tour de France.  This Tour is deemed to be one of the epic clashes as two talented cyclists, from the same team battled for supremacy.  For Hinault it would be an unprecedented sixth win.  For LeMond it would be his first, and he would be the first non-European to win the Tour. The backdrop to the race is the fact that LeMond gave up his own chance of victory the year before to support Hinault’s win and believed Hinault had promised to support him in 1986.

Given that this is a book about a bike race it’s slightly disconcerting to find out that the race only enters the book about 2/3 of the way through.  The first 2 sections are about the riders.

The book starts by giving a potted biography of Bernard Hinault up to the start of the race.  It describes his upbringing, his personality and his cycling career up to 1986.

The next section does the same for LeMond.

And then there is the description of what happened, stage by stage, in the race.

I really enjoyed the book.  I liked the fact that it describes the different viewpoints of the two protagonists and also uses the testimony of other team members, competitors and the Director Sportif’s Hinault and LeMond had worked with. It is also fairly even-handed in how it treats the 2 cyclists.

It was also interesting to find out more about the La Vie Clair team and how they brought cycling into the modern era.  Not something I knew much about and it has added to my knowledge of cycling.

I think the most frustrating thing is that I still don’t really know whether Hinault was stitching LeMond up or genuinely believed he was helping!

Antony & Cleopatra – directed by Simon Godwin for National Theatre

We don’t go down to London to the theatre that often but occasionally I spot something that looks interesting and we go.  This was one of those times and I’ve been looking forward to it for about 6 months.  I was also interested to see how much I agreed with the Sunday Times review of last week.

I’m never quite sure how I feel about the revolving stage at the Olivier Theatre.  It’s good in that it allows the scenery to move quickly and noiselessly from one place to another, in this instance from warm, sunny Egypt to high-tech, cooler Rome.  The problem is that it sometimes dominates the action and instead of support the action it becomes the action.  This was particularly the case when it became the submarine.  Too faffy and it could have been done in a simpler way that interrupted the flow of the play less.

I liked the modern setting and I thought Katy Stephens was a suitably martial Agrippa.  I suspect the traditionalist chap we spoke to before the performance wouldn’t have liked either.

Sophie Okonedo was the stand out performance for me.  Her Cleopatra was alive, capricious, beautiful and queenly. She made you understand why both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony had fallen head over heels in love with her.

Ralph Fiennes, as Antony, was competent, as you would expect from such a good actor, but I was a bit disappointed and felt he was holding back, not truly bringing the character to life.

Tunji Kasim, who I know is a good actor, spectacularly failed to display the ruthless effectiveness of the young Caesar plotting and manipulating his way to becoming dictator. Enobarbus seemed to be talking through his nose, which made him a bit difficult to understand at times. The rest of the cast was mostly ok but I felt that when they were on stage plotting their Roman shenanigans I was just waiting for Cleopatra to return.

Overall, I’m glad we went to see it, a little disappointed in its execution and am adding Sophie Okonedo to my list of actors I will try to see in whatever they do.


Four Sisters: the lost lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses – Helen Rappaport

The subtitle of this book should really be “but mainly about their mother Tsaritsa Alexandra Feodorovna” as it isn’t as much about the Grand Duchesses as I would have like it to have been.

The children of the last Russian Tsar are somewhat shadowy figures, their personalities overshadowed by the tragedy of their murders during the revolution.  It turns out, that because of the way they were brought, up away from Court and out of the public eye, they were also shadowy figures to the people of Russia too.

I think that is why this is, on the whole, a frustrating book.

The book needs to explain the Tsar and Tsaritsa; their personalities and their preference for remaining away from the gaze of the public and not wanting to be constantly on show at Court.  I understand that.  However, I feel this could have been accomplished in a shorter way, giving more space and time to Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, who never really come to life.

For a book about four girls growing up in 20th century this was like reading a biography of medieval women with their personalities and lives being inferred from a few fragmentary sources.  I understand that a lot of those who were close to the family perished in the revolution and that their papers were mainly burnt but there must be some way to piece together what is available to bring them alive.

I don’t feel as though I have added anything to what I already knew about the Grand Duchesses from reading other sources, which is a bit frustrating when this book purports to focus on them and their lives.

Noggin the Nog – Oliver Postgate & Peter Firmin

When I was a small child we used to go to the library every week to choose what we were going to read the following week.  I think we went to the library because it was a challenge, both in terms of cost and storage space, to keep me with sufficient books to read.

In my pre-school and nursery school days the Noggin the Nog series was a particular favourite.  I adored the pictures and loved listening to how Noggin, Nooka, Knut and Graculus were going to defeat Nogbad the Bad.

I didn’t realise until we were talking in the office that it had been a TV series before it was a series of books.  In my defence the series was before I was born!  What I did realise from the chat in the office was that I wanted to have a look at these books again to see if they were as good as I remembered them.

Unfortunately, books from the original series, published in the late 1960s, that I read as a child are ridiculously expensive, even by my standards, so I bought a modern boxed set of all 12 books and settled down for a good read.

And they were a good read.  I spent the weekend rereading all 12 books.

I enjoyed looking at the familiar pictures and remembering how exciting it was when I was little to look at the front picture and chat about what we thought the story was going to be about.

I found the characters to be engaging although, as an adult, you can see how Noggin isn’t always the hero and the good people sometimes do bad things.   I also liked that some of the characters aren’t what you expect them to be, such as the Ice Dragon and the Omruds.

Mostly the evil deeds of Nogbad are silly and amusing but I did think the pink flowers that took over the town were a bit scary.  I don’t remember reading this one as a child and I suspect it’s because my parents knew it was likely to give me nightmares.

My favourite of the stories was The Blackwash.  It caught me out and made me laugh at myself for being so foolish!

One thing I have learned from rereading Noggin is that sometimes it’s good to revisit your past and relive simpler times.  It can surprise you and enchant you all over again.

Tartuffe, directed by Iqbal Khan for RSC

I knew of Tartuffe before seeing this play but I’ve never seen it performed before and I don’t know the text so this theatre trip was a bit of an adventure.  I wasn’t sure what to expect although I knew it had been given an update by Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto.

Moliere’s original was about poking fun at, and satirising, “directeurs de conscience” in 17th century France.  These Catholic lay preachers exerted high levels of influence on the individuals they battened onto and not all of them were genuinely pious, religious or working in the best interests of their “clients”.

The play is about exposing the hypocrisy of the people who exploit the tenets and beliefs of devout people.

This RSC version has been transported to Birmingham and to a family of Pakistani Muslims.  The father, Iqbal, meets Tartuffe at the mosque, believes him to be a holy man and brings him home.

The rest of the family – children Damee and Mariam, wife Amira, friend Khalil and cleaner Darina – can see through Tartuffe but Iqbal continues to believe and to retreat into more traditional beliefs. The crux comes when Iqbal expects Mariam to break off her engagement to the man she loves and marry Tartuffe, when he signs away the family home and business to Tartuffe and when Tartuffe makes it clear to Amira that he wants her.

Darina, the main narrator, helps Amira devise a way out and Tartuffe is exposed as a con man.

The play starts with a bang – literally – as Darina explodes onto the stage listening to heavy metal music “through her headphones” and starts explaining what’s happening. It’s funny from the beginning and the audience continued laughing throughout the play.

There is some brilliant wordplay between characters and during the rap interludes.

I think that the underlying story has enough credibility for the audience to understand that it is universal. It doesn’t matter whether the family are Muslim, Catholic, Survivalists, wedded to the tenets of Napoleon Hill or another business guru, etc, etc, etc, the potential is there for an unscrupulous hustler to take advantage of a guileless follower.

I think the play also reflected how, in a world that has changed so much during their lifetime, older people can feel the need to find something that gives them a sense of certainty they lost when their generation became “the grown ups”.

On the whole I think the stage set worked well, although I am puzzled as to why some of the furniture needed to be moved around on Scalextric-style pegs in slots.  It was slightly distracting from the play trying to work out the why!

I really liked Michelle Bonnard as Darina, Raj Bajaj as Damee and Zainab Hasan as Mariam.  They inhabited their roles well.  I didn’t think anyone was miscast and, given some of my recent rants, everyone was audible.

Overall, a really fun evening at the theatre with an underlying message that kept us discussing it, on and off, all the way home from Stratford to Yorkshire.

Click here to find out Iqbal Khan’s view of the play

Click here for the What’s On Stage review

Mindfulness for Beginners – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Before I start writing about this book I’d like to make one thing clear; I think the idea of being mindful – being in the present and thinking about what you’re doing – is a good one and it would pay most of us to spend a bit more time contemplating rather than rushing around.

Having got that out of the way I can now say that I found this book to be a load of twaddle!

The book is split into sections; Entering [a state of mindfulness], Deepening it, Ripening it and Practicing it.  Under each header are very short chapters of 1 to 2 pages looking at a different aspect of the main header theme.

I can’t even begin to describe some of the things this book recommended as I’ve simply ditched them from my conscious mind and instead of feeling, calm, meditative and mindful I just wanted to throw the book at the wall!

It is the type of book that gives rise to the hippy-dippy, new-age, fluffy air-head tag that gets attached to people who are interested in meditation and alternative therapies.

I’m sure that somewhere there is a useful book on how to achieve mindfulness and how to incorporate it into your life.  This one isn’t it!  Don’t waste your money on it.