1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution – selected by Boris Dralyuk

I bought this book on a bit of whim whilst browsing in Waterstones on our way for a pre-theatre dinner.  The cover appealed to me and I liked the idea of the pieces being written in the immediacy of the revolution as it was happening when the outcome was uncertain.  It is easy to forget, when reading history books, that the outcome of an event is never certain it just feels as though it is when you know the outcome.

All the pieces are written between February 1917 and 1919 when the tide of the civil war turned in favour of the Bolsheviks.  The authors come from all sides of the political spectrum so the reader gets a reasonably balanced view of what is happening.

I really liked the fact that Dralyuk gave a potted biography of each included author at the beginning of each chapter.  These were mostly poignant as not many of them thrived under the new regime and yet in the book their poems and short stories are hopeful of better times to come.

I also really liked finding some new-to-me authors to find out more about.

The biggest downside of the book is that although I found it compelling, and I wanted to devour it in whatever free time I had, I prefer to read poetry out loud, which limits when you can read it.  I can only begin to imagine how people on the train might have reacted to me starting to read Russian poetry out loud at 8am!

I loved this book. however, I’d say you probably need to have an interest in Russian history as well as poetry and short stories to be as enthralled by it as I was.

Too much information…or can everyone just shut up for a moment, some of us are trying to think – Dave Gorman

This book was leant to me by a friend and isn’t one I would normally have chosen yet I found it a thought-provoking and seriously interesting book.

The book is about social media and how it is inserting itself into our lives.  It looks at how we are manipulated by not just social media but media in general and yet how shallow our interactions with the world are becoming.

There is a lot of information in the book, a lot of facts and yet, since Gorman points out that a lot of the stats from polls are ridiculous, one wonders just how true the book is.  In one respect I don’t think it matters, particularly if it makes people think, but I do feel there are some sweeping generalisations in the book.

I’d recommend it as a book to read when you want challenging.  It certainly isn’t bedtime reading.

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.