Dubliners by James Joyce

I’ve read bits of James Joyce books before – mainly in O-level English or English Lit class as part of a consideration of different literary styles I think – but never read a complete one. I think I’ve been put off by the idea that they’re incomprehensible and difficult. I don’t even know whether that statement is true. I certainly don’t know how I came to have this on my bookshelf.

Anyway, searching for something different to read, it fell into my hand and now seemed as good a time to read it as any.

What a revelation! Not difficult, interesting, lots of different characters and a great portrayal of nouveau-poor life in Ireland at the beginning of 20th century.

You might have gathered, from some of my previous posts, that I’m interested in books about people and their struggles with life – both fictional and factual. This book sits very firmly in this genre.

It is a book of short stories about mainly men eking out a living, drinking their wages and leaving their wives and families struggling. But it’s also a book about a city, the way people live, their friendships and their struggles.

There is a sense of hopelessness about the stories. A pervasive feeling of doing things from a sense of duty rather than from choice or an expectation of enjoyment.

As with a lot of short stories I felt I was getting a brief glimpse into someone’s life; a bit like getting a glimpse into someone’s house when the lights are on and the curtains not drawn. With some stories I was pleased to hurry past and with others I wanted to know more about their lives.

In short, I really enjoyed this book and it has given me the courage to find my copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man from whichever bookcase it has been buried in.

Maggie’s Life Work by Jeanie Ferry

Another early 20th century Sunday School prize book and after the torture of reading the last one (posted a couple of weeks ago) I almost slung this one straight onto the charity shop pile without bothering to read it.

Something though made me give it a go, with the very rare permission to myself to not finish it if it became too annoying. I’m pleased I did, sort of.

There’s a fair amount of teetotalling God-bothering in the story but at its heart is an interesting story of grinding poverty and the fight for survival.

It is by no means a happy book; it covered the death of a mother, a drunken, thieving father, and the death of a young and loved sister.

But, somehow, there is a sense of hope about the book. A feeling that it is possible to overcome one’s circumstances, live a humane life and believe in a better future.

This being a children’s book it does, of course, have if not a happy ending a satisfying one.

I wouldn’t dream of giving this book to a modern child – they would I think be bewildered by it – but it was a quirky and interesting period piece. And I’m glad I didn’t just sling it.

50 Cautionary Tales for Managers by Dr Peter Honey

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to attend the CIPD conference as a full delegate, sponsored by the company I worked for. Even luckier Peter Honey was facilitating one of the sessions (and he practices what he preaches, getting the whole group to participate in the session rather than just talking at us).

This book reflects Dr Honey’s style, encouraging the reader to think for themselves as well as to read and use the suggestions he makes.

The book gives 50 fairly typical scenarios managers might find themselves in, written in Peter Honey’s chatty style. The suggestions given are sensible and practical and whilst I might not use them myself, I am likely to incorporate some of the ideas into a course at some point.

The only thing I disliked about the book is that not everyone is likely to have it on their bookshelf in a situation where they might want to refer to it. It would be handy if they were held on Peter Honey’s website, nicely indexed, so you could look them us as you need them. Although I noticed that one of the scenarios has made it into one of Dr Honey’s blog posts!

Click here to go to Peter Honey’s website

The Fears of Henry IV: The life of England’s self-made King by Ian Mortimer

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book, in part because Henry IV fascinates me and in part because Ian Mortimer writes really readable books.

Henry IV fascinates me because he is almost a hidden King, eclipsed by his cousin, Richard II, and his son, Henry V. But what persuades a man who, by all accounts, was a conservative man, treading a careful line in the court of his cousin, to usurp power, take the throne and commit regicide? This book provides some of the answers.

I already knew a little about Henry of Lancaster from Shakespeare’s plays and because he has appeared in other history books I have read.

This book gave me much more and, for a biography of a medieval monarch, more than I expected: the difference, I guess, between biographies of men and women of the middle ages!

After reading this biography I have much more of a sense of who Henry was but also a sense of tremendous unfulfilled potential, both as Duke of Lancaster and as King. England might have been a different place if Richard II had behaved differently, and Henry been able to navigate through the turbulent waters Richard left in his wake.

In summary, I really enjoyed this dive into the life of an almost forgotten medieval King and enjoyed the journey through his life and times. Not sure what the title’s about though!

Frank Martin or A Schoolboy’s Trials & Victories

This book was part of an auction lot I bought. It was a Sunday School prize from 1904 and the eponymous hero is the youngest child of a rural working-class family.

Being a Sunday School prize, the Martin family are godly and good Christians and, despite the temptations strewn in his path, Frank also grows up to be a good man.

Whilst I accept that in children’s books good should triumph over evil, I do not agree with the central message of this book, which was that people should stay in their place and trust to God rather than think for themselves! My thinking reflects the major differences in society between the early part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st.

Thankfully, I didn’t waste too much time reading it.

And the cover of the book is very pretty and will look nice on someone’s bookshelf. Just not mine!

Me by Elton John

I’ve sort of put off reading this autobiography, in part because I prefer biographies and partly because I didn’t think there was much to learn about Elton John that hasn’t already been published in other media. How wrong I was.

The oddest thing I learned from this book is just how much I related to Elton’s only-child-obsessive collector-ness. It’s an obsession I share, although on a much less grand scale and something I’ve observed in a lot of my only-child friends. It’s almost as though “stuff” fills a gap that other people fill with sibling relationships.

For an autobiography, this book is fairly open about the less pleasant aspects of Elton John, although he does tend to pick out certain aspects and stories to highlight these aspects. I suspect we, the readers, haven’t seen more than a tiny fraction of the “tantrums and tiaras”.

The writer of this book – whether ghost writer or Elton John himself – has definitely found an engaging voice and it made this book easy to read and difficult to put down. Elton John has also lived a remarkable life, full of colour and energy.

Whether you like the music or not, if you are at all interested in other people’s lives you should definitely read this book.

The War That Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World war by Margaret MacMillan

This is a history of the run up to World War 1 from 1900 up to the outbreak of war. MacMillan looks at each of the power blocks – Germany, Russia, France, Austria-Hungary, Britain, and the Balkan states/Ottoman Empire – and considers the personalities of their ruling elite, public opinion, and foreign policies in the run up to the war.

The book is interesting and very readable, as I’ve come to expect from books by Margaret MacMillan. It’s also dispiriting! There were so many occasions where opportunities were missed to promote peace and/or avert war and it saddens me to know that all the bloodshed could have been averted. It reminds me of why organisations such as United Nations and NATO are so important in keeping nation talking to nation.

I don’t think there is anything in this book that I didn’t already know from other books. What the book does really well is show the different bits of the puzzle brought together. Most books look at what happened within a particular country. In this book the reader gets to see the wider picture.

I enjoyed finding out more about pre-War Europe and how each nation was linked to another in a much wider context than the fact that their monarchs were related to one another. It was also good to understand the political temperatures in different countries and how in the Triple Alliance, militarism tended to trump the political.

I feel that anyone who currently believes in the modern form of nationalism/isolationism should read this book to understand the mistrust it breeds and how important supranational organisations are in keeping issues that affect all nations – such as arms control – on the table and under discussion. Only by keeping communications open can opportunities for averting wars be explored and enacted.

Blazing Saddles by Matt Rendell

This is a history, sort of, of the Tour de France written by one of the most knowledgeable cycling commentators around.

The book covers the Tour from its inception in 1903 to 2006, just past the Lance Armstrong era. For each year Rendell gives details of the top three GC riders, notes the winners of other jerseys as they are introduced into the race and tell anecdotes about the riders, the accidents, and the characters around the Tour.

I enjoyed finding out more about the early days of the Tour. The later parts of the book were less interesting because they’ve been covered in other books I’ve read and, in more depth, than there is room for in this book.

I didn’t like the lack of condemnation of those who dope, and I didn’t like Matt Rendell’s seeming acceptance that doping is a part of cycling and high-level sport in general. This might be because at the time the book was written all the Lance Armstrong stuff hadn’t yet been proven. But in this day and age it feels wrong not to make it clear that athletes poisoning their bodies in the chase to achieve the impossible is not acceptable.

If I was reading this book now, knowing what I know, I’d probably stop at the 1970s.

Desert Island Discs: 70 years of castaways by Sean Magee

Just before Christmas a friend phoned me. He’d found a book that he’d forgotten he had and been dipping into it. He said he thought it was more my thing than his but hadn’t made up his mind about it yet. He’d bring me the book and if it was wrapped the book was mine. If it was unwrapped, he’d decided to keep it, but I could borrow it!

The book duly arrived, wrapped, and has been duly read and enjoyed.

I don’t listen to Desert island Discs, but I have always been interested when I’ve read about people’s choices. I have no idea how I would whittle down my favourite songs and pieces of music. I also have no idea how I could do this without coming across as a pretentious dweeb!

This book is divided up on chapters on 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s, etc up to “the new millennium” – this book was published in 2012, so it isn’t completely up to date.

I really enjoyed finding out more about how Roy Plomley came up with the idea for DID and didn’t realise that in its early days it didn’t have the consistent run it currently has. It was also interesting to see how the show has developed under its different presenters.

Under each chapter heading there is a section on several the castaways from that decade. It tells you of their eight choices of music and their choice of book and luxury item. It also gives excerpts from their conversation with the host. Some of these are definite period pieces; very polite conversation about uncontroversial topics.

This is definitely a book to dip in and out of when you have an odd 5 minutes to spare. I enjoyed it, I think, because I’m interested in people and what makes them tick. And it was good to pick up when I wanted a quick break from some sewing I’m doing. I wouldn’t want to sit down and read it from cover to cover in one go.

I’m definitely pleased my friend thought of me when he discovered this book in his home.

Collusion: How Russia helped Trump win the White House by Luke Harding

This book is a journalistic investigation into the financing of Trump, his businesses, and his presidential campaign.

Luke Harding is a journalist with The Guardian and was based in Russia until Russia decided it no longer wanted him there and deported him. This background suggests that Harding has knowledge of how post-Soviet Russia operates and has contacts to help uncover what goes on there.

The book gives examples of Trump, and the Trump family circle, having dealing with various people connected to Putin and other, shady characters with wealth and influence in Russia.

Harding is explicit in saying Putin supported/underwrote Trump’s presidential campaign in the belief Trump would be able to lift the sanctions the US has imposed on Russia. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when Putin was told that instead the sanctions had been renewed!

Whilst Harding is not able to provide proof that Trump is in Putin’s pocket there is enough evidence of various meetings and business deals, going back to the 1980s, to show Trump as having a pro-Russia stance.

This was a readable book but, ultimately, a bit unsatisfying as it is clear that there is more to come out on this story. When it will come out of Russia, who knows. Whether we’ll still be interested once Trump has faded into being an angry, bitter old has-been is anyone’s guess.