Buddha or Bust – Perry Garfinkle

Another Amazon Kindle Daily Deal 99p book.  I don’t think I’d have bought it if I hadn’t been away and a bit bored of the book I was reading but it was interesting and I have learned more about Buddhism from reading it.

Perry Garfinkle is a journalist and has dabbled in Buddhism for many years.  He set out to write an article on Buddhism for National Geographic and it turned into this book.

Garfinkle looks at the history of Buddhism and consider how although it originally migrated from East to West many of its modern developments are moving from West to East.

I hadn’t realised how many different forms Buddhism takes or that it tends to adapt to the culture of the countries it survives in.  Adapting, changing and, according to this book, growing.

The book helped me to understand the appeal of Buddhism and to understand more about its central tenets without making me want to delve in and discover more.  This, for me, was an intellectual exercise in curiosity rather than creating a need to delve deeper on a more spiritual level.

I think the author was what held me back from emotionally engaging with the book.  He comes across as self-centred and not very likable.  This made reading the book like a chore to plough through and a not very enjoyable experience.


Romeo & Juliet directed by Erica Whyman for RSC

It’s just over a fortnight since we went to see this play and I’ve been chewing over how I feel about it and not able to decide so this review might be a bit fractured and incoherent.

The first thing that I think has set me off-balance is that we went to see it on a Monday evening rather than out usual Saturday.  This completely changes the audience demographic from “people who go to the theatre” and weekend tourists to an audience mainly made up of school parties.

I think the audience make-up reminded me just how far away I am in age from the central characters and from remembering the intense pain and joy of first love; my life experience tells me that one tends to grow out of the person you fall in love with at sixteen as both of you mature and start looking for different things from life.  I don’t mean this to sound cynical, it’s just that this is how it was for me and most of my school friends.

I thought Erica Whyman’s take on the play worked; I can see the parallels with our modern society and increasing knife carrying and stabbings. I also liked the way some traditionally male parts were played by women…although the lady sitting next to me was tutting about it!

Of these I thought Beth Cordingly was excellent as Escalus.  When I saw she was playing the part I doubted she had the gravitas and authority to pull it off.  I am happy to eat my words and confirm she had both.

I liked the idea of Charlotte Josephine’s Mercutio although I think she needs clearer diction and to spit more venom into her “curse on both your houses” speech.

Both Lady Capulet and Lady Montague need to sharpen up their diction too.  It shouldn’t be difficult to hear what people are saying when you’re sitting in row B of the stalls.

I also think all four of the elder Capulets and Montagues need to show more antagonism and hatred to one another.  Their feud is, after all, the underlying raft of the main storyline.

Both Bally Gill, as Romeo, and Karen Fishwick, as Juliet, were excellent and believable as the star-crossed lovers.  The girls in the school parties were entranced by their scenes.  (The boys were equally interested in the macho-posturing fights of the earlier scenes.)

On the whole I liked the staging; clean and simple without too much getting in the way.  The cube that revolved to become different things worked well, with one exception.  The exception was when it was used as Juliet’s tomb.  At this point its place at the back of the stage made it difficult to see what was happening and it removed us, the audience, from the intimacy of the scene.

When I came out of the theatre I was pretty certain that I would never book tickets for a mid-week performance again.  On reflection I think I might; there was a different audience response from what we would normally see on a Saturday evening, it has made me think more and I think it was good for us to be shaken out of our comfortable Stratford routine.

Tom Brown’s Schooldays – Thomas Hughes

It is years since I last read this book and decided to reread it on a whim having spotted it on my bookshelf.

I think the book is from a holiday with my parents, staying at my aunt’s house in a rainy and windswept Whitley Bay.  My parent’s kept me amused with a constant steam of books and, concerned that I was devouring books at a rapid rate of knots, decided to start me on some books meant for older children.  This was one and Hans Brinker was the other.

I really enjoyed re-meeting the characters in the book and there was so much I don’t remember.  I also don’t remember the social commentary and the way the book highlights what were then seen as desirable traits in young English gentlemen.  I suspect I didn’t notice these things when I was younger because although I had the vocabulary and reading ability for the book I didn’t have the emotional maturity.

I enjoyed reading about how Tom stood up to Flashman and I’d forgotten just what a horrible person Flashman is.  It has completely put me off reading George MacDonald Fraser’s books.

It was also good to read the ending where Tom hears of the death of Dr Arnold and contemplates how much influence he had on his life.  I’d also completely forgotten about this ending too.

All in all this was an excellent re-read and I would recommend it.

101 Damnations: dispatches from the 101st Tour de France – Ned Boulting

I like Ned Boulting’s commentary during the Tour de France.  I also enjoyed reading his first book, How I won the Yellow Jumper so I was delighted when I received this as an unexpected Christmas present.

The book is mainly about the 101st Tour, as the title suggests, and covers the Grand Depart from Yorkshire.  I was a Tour Maker for the Grand Depart so I was interested in what Boulting had to say about it; I enjoyed it hugely and thought the people who turned up at the patch I was looking after were great and made all the waiting around an enjoyable occasion.

I enjoyed the way the book covers not just the cyclists but their support teams as well during the defining moments of the 2014 Tour.  It’s good to see people other than the superstars getting recognition for what the superstars achieve.  Ned Boulting has a great way of describing the people he comes across and he usually seems to find some interesting quirk to comment on.

The book also looks at some of the personalities from past Tours; the various stars caught up in doping scandals and promising riders who died in road traffic accidents.  It’s a gloomy thought though that people like Marcel Kittel aren’t recognised and rewarded in their home nations.  He also comments on cycling related industries.

The most dispiriting parts of the book though relate to the presence of doping in cycling and the fact that because of past misdemeanours people question the integrity of Chris Froome, who I would like to believe is a clean rider.  Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that cycling will ever outlive the drug scandals it has gone through in recent times.

This is an informative and witty book.  I was delighted to receive it as a Christmas present and really enjoyed reading it.

Cruel Crossing; escaping Hitler across the Pyrenees – Edward Stourton

This is a history of some of the escape routes out of Nazi occupied Europe open to people trying to flee the horrors of the Nazi war machine, avoid capture as POWs and get useful information out to the Allies.

The book tells the stories of some of the people involved working the lines, the stories of some of the escapees and about the routes themselves.  It also tells of how the Chemin de la Liberte is commemorated today.

Whilst this book is a celebration of the escape routes it is also sad to learn of the brave people who were betrayed, tortured and killed for running the routes or for trying to use them to escape.  It is almost unbearably sad to learn about those who were so close to freedom but didn’t quite make it over the dangerous and treacherous paths.

I knew, from previous reading, that crossing the Pyrenees was a route out of Nazi Europe but until I read this book I had no real understanding of the difficulties facing people trying to achieve it.  Nor did I know anything of the people who were involved in helping to get people through to Spain.

Edward Stourton has done a good job in uncovering facts and bringing them to life in this book.  He uses a good mix of personal testimony from survivors, hand-me-down stories from the descendants of those who are no longer alive to tell their stories and documented records and accounts. This means the reader gets a many-sided view of the history of the Chemin de la Liberte.

I’m also impressed that Stourton completed the Chemin.

A book that is emotionally difficult to read in parts and one well worth reading.

Click here to find out more about the Chemin de Liberte

Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain

This isn’t my usual sort of book but it was recommended to me so I thought I’d give it a whirl.  The sub-title of the book is “adventures in the culinary underbelly” and it is a sort of autobiography into how Anthony Bourdain got into cooking.

I have to start by saying that Bourdain comes across as an arrogant prat in the book.  He isn’t someone I’d want to meet.  However, his obvious and genuine love of good food makes the book readable and at no point did I consider not finishing it, despite throwing the book across the room a few times!

This is a classic tale of someone finding their purpose in life quite by chance; a friend was sick of Bourdain sponging off him and others so found him a job as a dishwasher.  From dishwasher to food prep and hey presto something clicked.

The early part of the book tells of the author’s fairly privileged upbringing and then his life spiralling out of control through drugs and bad career choices.  It then moves on to a clean Anthony and his rise as a renowned chef.

The book doesn’t hesitate to describe the appalling things that happen in restaurant kitchens, which is a bit off-putting to someone who regularly eats out!  It also helps you to understand how professional kitchens work and to understand what you should and shouldn’t order and when from a restaurant menu.

I probably won’t read any other books by Anthony Bourdain but, on the whole, I’m pleased I read this one.

Seven Deadly Sins: my pursuit of Lance Armstrong – David Walsh

I remember reading David Walsh’s early articles in The Sunday Times, at first with disbelief and then with a growing sense that there might be something in what Walsh was saying.  I’m not sure anyone was really surprised when the truth finally came out that Armstrong had been doping for years and had, essentially, bullied others into covering up what was happening in the sport.

This book is the story of David Walsh’s transition from Tour de France fan to cynical journalist to crusader trying to expose the corruption at the heart of the cycling fraternity.

Walsh tells not only of his own consignment to “troll” status within the TdF press pack but also of the terrible pressure and horrible stories spread about the Andreus, the LeMonds and Emma O’Reilly when they tried to expose the cheating going on in the US Postal team and by Armstrong particularly.  I am left with enormous admiration for Betsy Andreu for continuing to stand up against Lance Armstrong when he tried to destroy her and her husband for exposing him as a cheat.

The book isn’t just about the pursuit of Armstrong though.  It also tells the story of how doping affected the health of other cyclist.  One story that sticks in my memory is about a 21-year-old cyclist who damaged a leg during the Giro and needed an operation.  When they opened him up in the operating theatre they found his blood was thick sludge from the performance enhancing drugs he had been taking.  I find it shocking that people are prepared to do this to themselves.  Perhaps I’m naive or just not very competitive but I can’t believe that any race or sport is worth damaging your health to that extent.

It was good to read the book as it brings together all Walsh’s articles and research into one place to read at one time, rather than The Times articles that I read over a number of years.

It’s dispiriting though to find that Walsh feels the story of doping in cycling isn’t yet finished, especially on top of the recent allegations about Wiggins and Froome.

The Bugatti Queen: in search of a motor racing legend – Miranda Seymour

This is a book about Helene Delangle, aka Helle Nice, provincial child, exotic dancer in 1920s Paris and pre-WWII racing driver.

Helene Delangle was born at the end of the 19th century, the daughter of a rural French postmaster who died when she was young.

As a young woman she went to Paris to pursue a career as a dancer, changed her name to Helle Nice and seems to have existed on the seedier edges of the glamorous roaring 20s although she gradually rose through the ranks to become a headline dancer until she damaged her knee.

Her second career was as a racing driver, entering all the main races and competing against male drivers as well as in women’s races.  Although the book is entitled “The Bugatti Queen” she wasn’t exclusively a Bugatti driver and left to Ettore she may not have driven Bugattis at all.  Fortunately for her Jean Bugatti took an interest and she went onto set a speed record for them.

Helle had a talent for publicity, probably from the highly competitive dance world, and went on a tour of USA, successfully racing on dirt tracks as well as racing ovals until she had a serious accident in South America which stalled her career.

She remained in France during WWII and afterwards expected to take up racing again.  Unfortunately, Louis Chiron (the man the new Bugatti Chiron is named after) publically accused her of working for the Gestapo during the war and this finished her career although the author of this book notes that she could not find any documentary evidence to support Chiron’s claim.

Helle Nice lived until 1975, forgotten in the increasing male dominated world of motor racing and increasingly living in poverty.

I really enjoyed reading this book as it brought together several things I’m interested in: the jazz age, motor racing and the part played by women in motor sport during the 1920s and 30s.

Helle Nice is colourful character and, along with the other serious women drivers between the wars, does not deserve to languish in oblivion.

I think the author does a good job of pulling together the strands of a life shrouded in the mist of time and also subject to several revisions by the subject over her lifetime.

More and more I think it’s more than time that the motor sport fraternity gave due recognition to the women drivers who more than held their own during the inter-war years.  If you want more women in motor sport, start celebrating those who were successful at it in an era where gender roles were supposedly much more rigidly defined than they are today.

I am, I am, I am: Seventeen brushes with death – Maggie O’Farrell

This isn’t a book I would have chosen to buy but when a friend recommended it and left his copy of the book with me it seemed churlish not to read it.

The book is made up of 17 chapters, each about a near death experience mostly by the author but the final chapter about her daughter.

Some of the chapters are enough to give you nightmares if you stop and think about them too much; an encounter with a creepy man who is later arrested for the murder of another young woman, a plane nearly crashing when you’re a passenger, being held up by a machete wielding man in Chile.  Other chapters tell of difficult periods in O’Farrell’s life with a down to earth matter of factness.

As a memoir it gives one an insight into the author that a more traditional autobiography might not.  I feel I have learned something about her from the way she writes of her reactions to the memory of these events.  It would, however, be good to know how she reacts to the more positive events in her life.

The most harrowing chapter of the book is that about her daughter and the horrible things the family go through with the daughters severe allergies, eczema and anaphylaxia.  I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to have to watch a beloved child suffer in this way.

I can’t say I enjoyed this book.  I prefer a full, more in-depth biography and, preferably, one about someone I’ve heard of.  I still wouldn’t choose to buy a book like this.  But it was an interesting experience and I believe we should always try something different one in a while.

Reading People: secret tips that reveal the truth behind body language – Jo-Ellen Dimitrius & Mark Mazzarella

The main author of this book, Jo-Ellen Dimitrius, has a job that absolutely fascinates me. Her role is to find the right people to be jurors for major trials in USA.  An example she often quotes is finding people for the OJ Simpson trial.

The premise of the book is that if you can “read” people effectively you can work out whether they are being truthful, what their beliefs are and how they are likely to react to certain events and situations.  Also, if you are reading other people you consider how they might also be reading you.

The book goes through a process, chapter by chapter giving ideas on how to build ones ability to read other people.  The chapter headings give a good idea of what to expect: Reading Readiness, Discovering Patterns, First Impressions, Scanning the Environment, Hearing More Than Words, ASking the Right Questions, Actions Speak Louder Than Words, Spotting Exceptions, Listening to Your Intuition, Understanding How Others Are Reading You and Making Snap Judgements.

I don’t think there is anything particularly new in this book that I haven’t come across in the past reading books by Alan and Barbara Pease for example.  It was a useful reminder of everything I’ve been taught about body language, mainly to look at groupings, context and consistency.

I also really enjoyed the stories and anecdotes the authors used to illustrate the points they were making.  They brought the ideas to life and helped to make sense of what I was reading.

The downside of the book is that it was published in 1998 and some of the ideas stated reflect out of date fashions, ideas and behaviours.  Whilst I think the basic tenets of this book remain true our digital 21st century has changed the way the react to people and events and we have other ways of finding out about people as well as by reading them.  Some of the Americanisms are also a bit annoying to a British reader.

I’d recommend the book as readable and interesting if you are interested in improving your communication skills.  It isn’t “un-put-down-able” but I did look forward to my morning read on the train.