2021 in books (April – June)

Books

Where does the time go?

The last few months have been incredibly busy. Live performances might still be few and far between (only one so far this year) but upcoming changes to my music therapy work have kept me in the office more than usual. I found myself lacking the energy or will to read at times, but lie most things in life, this too passed…

Here are the books I did manage to read in the last three months. They’re a bit of a mixed bag. More than ever, they made me think about other books I’ve read, some of which I have recommended below at appropriate points. Let’s dive in…

A moveable feast by Ernest Hemingway (1964, Vintage)

Hemingway’s account of his time in Paris, from around 1920-1926, was written in the last years of his life, at a distance of over three decades. It gives some insight into his method of working, at least at the time, as well as his opinions on other famous figures whom he came into contact with, including Scott F. Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach (proprietor of the famous Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on Paris’ Left Banke).

This memoir is an interesting dive into one period of the life of a man considered to be one of the Great American Novelists. It paints a strong picture of the streets and scenes of the City of Light during the so-called ‘Roaring Twenties’. However, don’t rely on it as a guide book. Almost a century on, Paris has changed, making this book of short, descriptive chapters something of a time capsule.

This book is one of many I’ve read about Paris, the ‘City of Light’. Despite their proximity to Britain and the intertwining histories of both nations, there’s so much to be learned from looking into the past of one of the UK’s closest neighbours. Other books on France and Paris which might be worth your time:

  • For a more up to date and light-hearted look at France’s wonderful capital, try Paris Revealed by Stephen Clarke. Chapters are divided by subject such as food, addrosiments, apartments and the Parisiennes themselves, all from the loving but bemused perspective of a Brit who has lived there for years (2011, Black Swan)
  • The Little Pleasures of Paris, meanwhile, is more of a small coffee-table book. Author Leslie Jonath divides the things she adores about the City of Light into four sections; one for each season. Each entry is short, but accompanied by beautifully chic illustrations by Lizzie Stewart (2016, Chronicle)
  • Jeremy Mercer’s Bedbugs and Baguettes is partly the memoirs of his time in Paris, and partly the history of where he ends up staying, the famous Left Banke bookshop Shakespeare & Co (named after the original shop, which had closed years before), as well as its colourful owner, George. One for bibliophiles (2007, Magna)
  • For a more general overview of the nation’s history, Modern France by Jonathan Fenby offers a fascinating insight into the how France got to where it is now, starting with the revolution of 1789 (2015, Simon and Schuster)

I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (2013, Transworld)

Loaned to me by a friend, this fast-paced thriller is the debut novel of the screenwriter behind Mad Max 2, Dead Calm, Payback and From Hell, among many others. Two quotes from John Le Carre and Raymond Chandler at the preface of this book highlight Hayes’ influences in the world of espionage and detective fiction. View these alongside the many Clancy/Grisham style thrillers (which often end up being remade into the sort of film he’d write the screenplay for) and you have the measure of this novel.

Saying that, this is a good book. It’s 888 pages are divided into four parts, each of which is made up of short chapters that left me wanting to read ‘just one more’ before setting the book down for the night. Part one features a lot of flashback or scene-setting chapters that initially made me wonder exactly where this book was going. However, Hayes does a good job of tying up pretty much every thread in this novel. Very little is remains a mystery by the end of the book. If that’s something you like to see in your thrillers, give this book a go. Don’t expect a deep examination into the soul of humanity, or even genuine development of any of the side characters (or even the main protagonist narrating in first-person, for that matter). But be assured that the story is gripping.

Shylock is my name by Howard Jacobson (2016, Vintage)

Another Shakespeare adaptation, this time retelling The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is a challenging antagonist for modern audiences uncomfortable (and rightly so) with the antisemitism throughout the Bard’s original play. Jacobson won the Man Booker prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question, a novel which explores the author’s experience as a British Jew (you can read my short review for that book here), but has also written on heroes from Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps this reimagining of Shylock was the next logical step?

As you may have read previously, I had mixed feelings about The Finkler Question, and this novel leaves me with a similar feeling of dissatisfaction. It’s an interesting concept and a good story with lovely, funny moments in it, but overall, it felt like it wasn’t quite good enough. Fans of Jacobson will love this book, but it’s not high on my list of recommendations.

England’s forgotten past by Richard Tames (2010, Thames & Hudson)

The full title of this small (185 pages), fact-filled book is almost a chapter in itself: England’s forgotten past: the unsung heroes & heroines, valiant Kings, great battles & other generally overlooked episodes in our nation’s glorious history. It’s eight chapters are subdivided further, with various ‘fact boxes’ and illustrations along the way. As well as bringing lesser known characters and events from English history to light, Tames also sets the record straight on some common misconceptions. Worth a read for the casual history fan, although it’s brevity might make one feel as if they are reading a collection of factoids, such as those published by the BBC factual/comedy quiz QI (or Quite Interesting, to give the show’s full title).

Publisher Thames & Hudson have a wealth of interesting titles which, similarly to England’s Forgotten Past, offer brief glimpses into less well-examined areas of history. Of those I have read (and there several more on my ‘to buy list), personal favourites include:

  • Shakespeare’s London on 5 Groats a Day, also by Tames (2018), looks at the alehouses and streetlife of London during the Bard’s lifetime. Taking in everyone from “courtiers to cut-throats” and of course, the dramatists and actors who were Shakespeare’s colleagues and contemporaries, we get the interesting perspective of medieval history from street level
  • Histories of Nations: how their identities were forged (Ed. Peter Furtado, 2012) features contributions from numerous writers, usually focusing on one small facet of a country’s history and how it helped create, or reflects, the nation we might recognise today
  • The Great Cities in History (Ed. John Jules Norwich, 2009) is another brilliant collection of short essays by various writers. Divided into four parts (ancient, medieval, early modern & modern), each chapter focuses on a city in its heyday, from Thebes in the Golden Age of Egypt to present day Shanghai as “China’s Super-City”
  • Finally, History Day By Day (Peter Furtado, 2019) is a collection of quotes from history for every day of the year. The 366 voices compiled range from Joan of Arc to JFK, and Galileo to Gandhi, bringing history to life through the words of those who lived it

The algebraist by Iain M. Banks (2004, Orbit)

Banks was well known for holding down two slightly different fiction writing careers: ‘regular’ fiction such as debut novel The Wasp Factory as Iain Banks, and science fiction with the middle initial ‘M’. Most of his sci-fi output was his epic & complex Culture series. But this novel is one of his few standalone sci-fi stories.

Having read most of the Culture novels, I knew roughly what to expect and everything which makes that series so popular is present here, except for artificial intelligence (which is illegal in this story). Instead we get a very descriptive sort-of thriller inside a space opera, centered around varying species of life: the “quick”, who’ve only been round for mere thousands of years such as us, and the “slow” – jellyfish-like creatures inhabiting gas giants and almost as old as the galaxy itself. If you can get on board with that concept and the speculation which comes with it, then you’ll probably enjoy this book. I can see similarities between this and I Am Pilgrim, although this sci-fi novel has considerably longer chapters and isn’t quite as quick a read.

So there we are for now. As always, get in touch with your own thoughts and recommendations for future reading. I’ve had some great book chats with a few folk since I started cataloguing my ‘fun reading’ and my list of books to read is getting longer every week.

I’m already into the books which will be featured next time. Expect music, history, travel and an extraordinary adventure in search of a good coffee…

A year of books (July – September)

Books

It’s hard to believe that we’re in the final three months of the year. What a year it’s been! I’m sure no one could have reliably predicted the majority of changes which most of us have had to undergo, hopefully on a temporary basis, because of this pandemic. I hoped that it might offer more time to get through my oft-mentioned (and ever increasing) ‘to read’ pile. However, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that life doesn’t always go the way you expect it to.

Still, there has been some reading since the last installment (which you can read about here), and here is a brief review of it…

The Italians by John Hooper (2015, Penguin)

An affectionate and sometimes amusing look at the characteristics common to Italians, and why that might be the case. Hooper also reiterates that Italy is a relatively new country (as a unified whole), and spends almost as much time highlighting what separates Italians from different regions; north and south; Romans and Sicilians; mountain dwellers and those who reside by the country’s ample coastline, and so on. Hooper regularly interjects anecdotes from his extensive time living and working in Italy as a journalist. These passages give the book a greater cohesion, in that the presumed reader (and Englishman) sees the situations unfold through the eyes of the author, and with similar inherent sensibilities. However, Hooper restrains himself from writing this as a straightforward memoir, which I expect that has increased it’s potential readership.

I read this book during lockdown in England. Of course, Italy had imposed one of the most stringent lockdowns of any country in the world, and the Italians have seemingly been obedient and compliant. This seemed to go against one of the common reoccurring themes in Hooper’s observations; that Italians will regularly bend the rules to suit their needs or preferences. The reports I was hearing on the news in 2020 didn’t sit with this assessment, until I considered another of the books themes – the emphasis and commitment Italians place on family. From this angle, undertaking the strictest measures, which seemed like virtual home arrest to some, made sense, as it gave your elderly relatives a fighting chance of making it through this madness alive. And that, argues Hooper five years before any of this was upon us, is a key characteristic of Italians. Recommended for anyone with an interest in staying in Italy for longer than an average-length holiday.

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (2010, Bloomsbury)

Jacobson’s 2010 comic novel about three male friends – two of them Jewish and a third man who suddenly feels that he might be, won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 2010. This sudden interest in the religion of his friends is the author’s way of examining the universal themes of life and society. It is amusing in places, and the characters are interesting and well-written. Yet I certainly wasn’t gripped by it as much as I had been led to believe the reviewers who had gushed over this novel upon it’s release. Humorous and touching, yes, but also confused in places, and ultimately, slightly underwhelming.

Athelstan by Tom Holland (2016, Penguin)

A recent addition to the Penguin Monarchs series (that is, books on British monarchs published by Penguin books, although there’s a pun about Emporer Penguins in there somewhere), this book examines one of the lesser-known pre-1066 Kings (who wasn’t Alfred the Great).

I enjoy Holland’s writing, having read several of his books previously – in particular, I thoroughly recommend Rubicon, about the last gasp of the Roman Republic. At 160 pages, this is a quick read, but it covers what is known about Athelstan, from the few sources available. Personally, I’m pleased that Holland resisted the temptation to pad the book out with unnecessary additional information or unfounded presumptions.

Utopia for realists by Rutger Bregman (2016, Bloomsbury)

Alternate subtitles for this book, depending on country of publication, include and how we can get there (UK) and the slightly less pithy sounding the case for a universal basic income, open borders, and a 15-hour workweek (Holland). Although the latter of these two subtitles is somewhat unwieldly, it must be said that it up this book’s subject matter much more effectively. The book originated as a series of articles for the Dutch online news site De Correspondent by Bregman, a popular historian, and was later complied and translated. It has quickly became a bestseller, which ringing endorsements from a wide range of economists and politicians across the world.

The text centres on the three polices highlighted in the original subtitle, along with the principle that ideas can change the world, according to Bregman, who states “people are the motors of history and ideas the motors of people”. Of course, there are many who have said that Bergman strays into idealism, and it will certainly prove more popular with readers of a more left-leaning political persuasion. But Bergman is only aiming to issue a challenge, or a promise, of what could be possible but I doubt if the title Utopia for Idealists would have sold quite as well. A manifesto for a brighter future? Maybe not by itself, but a good place to start.

Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson (1971, Cassell)

In the afterword section of the book, Robinson recounts his inspiration for writing the story. He read a former R.A.F. pilot describe the tactic of the world’s first fighter pilots during WWI as “to sneak in unobserved behind his opponent and then shoot him in the back”. Hardly the cavaliers of the clouds they have often been immortalized as in tales such as the Biggles series, amongst many others.

This Booker Prize shortlisted book paints it’s fictitious characters in a more truthful light, based on the diaries and letters of real WWI pilots. The book was met with anger from veterans of the Royal Flying Corps (the forerunner to the Royal Air Force) when it was first released, but reading it in 2020, it feels much less controversial now – the idea of a ‘lovely war’ has remained a 20th century concept – but the story is no less gripping for that fact. At just over two hundred pages, it’s a relatively fast read, but I found that the story stayed with me long after I had replaced the book on the shelf.

The next and final installment of this series (due in late December) will feature two novels I have been looking forward to reading. You can also expect updates on some upcoming studio dates and an in-depth review of a new guitar built for me recently. Until next time…

Great Guitarists #11: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Great Guitarists

In this installment, a singer and guitar player who took the blues, folk and gospel and created what could arguably be considered the forerunner to rock’n’roll…

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Born in 1915, Tharpe (born Rosetta Nubin) started playing guitar and singing in church at the young age of just four years old. Touring with an evangelical church troupe from the age of six, she settled in Chicago. Her stage name comes from her first marriage to preacher Thomas Tharpe at the age of 19; she carried on using the name Tharpe professionally after their divorce in 1984 , up until her death from a stroke in 1973 (during which time she remarried twice).

Tharpe is perhaps best remembered as a singer, with a loud clear singing style. But something about her singing, combined with her foot stomping and blues-tinged guitar picking – not to mention some cool lead lines – stirred the interest in many young listeners who would go on to be the next generation of musicians. Little Richard and Johnny Cash both called Tharpe their favourite singer, she is cited as a crucial influence to artists such as Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tina Turner, Isaac Hayes, Meatloaf and Karen Carpenter. Tharpe’s appearance on a British TV special about the Blues and Gospel Caravan, a European tour of US musicians that also included Muddy Waters, Otis Span and Sonny Terry, amongst many others, brought her to the attention of British audiences, including future guitar superstars like Eric Clapton.

“Tharpe’s guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements and incorporated a pulsating swing that was a precursor of rock and roll”

Biography.com (‘Sister Rosetta Tharpe’, 2015)

Tharpe’s guitar playing is said to have directly influenced the vocals/guitar style of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley – and if the first rock’n’rollers such as Berry, Presley and Richard call Tharpe an influence, she must the foundation of all that followed…

Tharpe’s career was curtailed by a stroke in 1970, and she died just three years later. Nowadays, her influence is often unfairly overlooked, and sometimes forgotten entirely. However, Tharpe played a crucial role in the history of American music of the 20th century, not to mention the birth of rock’n’roll. Furthermore, in this brilliant article by Erin White, Tharpe is hailed as a Queer Icon too, largely due to speculation over her affair with singer Marie Knight.

Here she is on a TV show in the mid-sixties, singing a gospel song with a gospel choir, but playing a slightly overdriven Gibson Les Paul Custom (although we know these as a Gibson SG nowadays) with it’s three humbuckers. She also pops in a blues-based solo in the middle!

When I think of three humbucker guitars, I recall Neil Young’s ‘Black Beauty’ Les Paul, or the rock band KISS. As for the SG guitar shape, Angus Young of AC/DC and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath are the first two players who spring to most people’s minds – not a lady in her fifties singing a combination of blues and gospel. It must be remembered that for many, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the first black woman they’d ever seen playing an electric guitar, and she could play! But what else should we expect from the Tharpe – one of a small handful who can truly claim to be the start, or inspiration, of rock’n’roll?

Recommended listening

Tharpe’s 1944 single Strange Things Happening Every Day, is considered one of the first rock’n’roll singles, and is the first ever Gospel record to make it onto Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade (now called their R&B chart). One her most acclaimed studio albums is Gospel Train (Mercury, 1956). This record marks the stylistic change, backed by New York session musicians, and is considered highly influential on later rock’n’roll artists.

With a career that took place from the 30’s to the early 70’s, it is sometimes best to seek out compilation albums in order to have all of Tharpe’s most well-known releases in one place. To that end, I would recommend Bring Back Those Happy Days: Greatest Hits and Selected Recordings (Jasmine, 2018), or the 4-CD set The Original Soul Sister (Proper, 2002).

As with each installment in the Great Guitarists series, I have only touched upon the surface of these influential players. I’d love to hear your thoughts on them, as well as recommendations on who should be featured (I have another four or five lined up already – I wonder if anyone can guess who is coming next?). Until next time…