Tag Archives: Cuba

165. Books Bought & Read, January 2018…

165. Books Bought & Read, January 2018…

2018 began where 2017 left off: with me struggling to finish enough books at the end of the month to out-read my 20 purchases, and yet again I just about managed to keep my nose in front by single volume, (the wonderfully opaque, yet readable allegorical parable, or possibly parabolic allegory, The Schooldays Of Jesus by J.M.Coetzee).


I also got in early for February’s  Black History Month with a ‘What If Only African Americans Had Super Powers’ Kickstarter funded graphic novel, and the excellent How To for blacks and friends of blacks in modern-day America.

It was a good reading month for me, and there are a LOT of recommendations this month, from Margaret Atwood’s recent collection of random (and surprisingly dark) short stories, to a return to form for Dave Eggers, (after the slow Hologram For The King and the dire, didactic The Circle), with the beautifully observed story of a single mother trailing across Alaska with her two young children in Heroes Of The Frontier.

Science featured heavily in January. I’m thoroughly enjoying  working my way back through journalist A.J.Jacobs‘ complete back catalogue. What’s not to like? He thinks of a ridiculous experiment and then dedicates himself to seeing it through and reporting on it, this time attempting to organise the world’s largest family reunion following the logic that we are all, essentially, part of the same (very extended) family. I now know how important Mormons are to the hereditary industry, and also wish I had A.J’s life.


I followed this up with the wonderfully silly We Have No Idea, an illustrated manual to everything we don’t know about the universe, aimed at kids but wonderfully informative for scientifically-impaired grown-ups like me, too.

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You may have spotted a couple of geographically specific books, due to the fact that we ignored “President” Trump’s warnings and decided to fulfil a lifelong ambition to visit Cuba, thereby escaping a chunk of New York’s winter, (which seems to come around practically every year…)

Havana was old, crumbling, warm, friendly, cheap, fascinating, welcoming, just good old fashioned fun, (literally old fashioned, with the endless 1950’s classic cars on every street corner), and I could appreciate the images, symbolism and mentality a little better thanks to the excellent Cuba On The Verge, a dozen essays on everything from the history to the fashion to the feminism of this endlessly fascinating country.

Highly recommended, whether or not you’re planning on visiting.

Books Bought, January 2018

The Boiling River (Andrés Ruzo)

The Chibok Girls (Helen Habila)

Imagine (Erik Johansson)

Born To Run (Bruce Springsteen)

You May Also Like: taste in an age of endless choice (Tom Vanderbilt)

Solve For Happy: engineer your path to joy (Mo Gawdat)

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 men on the words that move them (ed.Anthony & Ben Holden)

Poems That Make Grown Women Cry: 100 women on the words that move them (ed.Anthony & Ben Holden)

Vacationland (John Hodgman)

Taste: surprising stories and science about why food tastes good (Barb Stuckey)

It’s All Relative: adventures up and down the world family tree (A.J.Jacobs)

Everybody Lies: big data, new data, and what the internet can tell us about who we really are (Seth Stephens Davidowitz)

Angels With Dirty Faces: the footballing history of argentina (Jonathan Wilson)

We Have No Idea: a guide to the unknown universe (Jorge Cham & Daniel Whiteson)

Black (Osajyefo, Smith III, Igle & Randolph)

Star Wars: les plus belles affiches/the most beautiful posters (Drew Struzan0

The Art Of Neil Gaiman (Hayley Campbell)

Heroes Of The Frontier (Dave Eggers)

Talking To My Daughter About The Economy: a brief history of Capitalism (Yanis Varoufakis)

How To Be Black (Baratunde Thurston)


Books Read, January 2018 (highly recommended books in bold)

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl (Carrie Brownstein)

Stone Mattress: nine tales (Margaret Atwood)

Stranger In A Strange Land (Robert A.Heinlein)

A Tree In The Sea (Holly & Blake Kern)

Paris, Trance (Geoff Dyer)

Imagine (Erik Johansson)

Havana: a subtropical delirium (Mark Kurlansky)

Cuba On The Verge: 12 writers on continuity and change in havana and across the country (ed.Leila Geurreiro)

It’s All Relative: adventures up and down the world family tree (A.J.Jacobs)

Solve For Happy: engineer your path to joy (Mo Gawdat)

Black (Osajyefo, Smith III, Igle & Randolph)

The Chibok Girls (Helen Habila)

We Have No Idea: a guide to the unknown universe (Jorge Cham & Daniel Whiteson)

Vacationland (John Hodgman)

Am I Alone Here? notes on living to read and reading to live (Peter Ormer)

Star Wars: les plus belles affiches/the most beautiful posters (Drew Struzan0

Talking To My Daughter About The Economy: a brief history of Capitalism (Yanis Varoufakis)

Heroes Of The Frontier (Dave Eggers)

Einstein’s Riddle: riddles, paradoxes, and conundrums to stretch your mind  (Jeremy Stangroom)

How To Be Black (Baratunde Thurston)

The Schooldays Of Jesus (J.M.Coetzee)

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Posted by on March 13, 2018 in BOOKS


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70. ‘Hitch 22,’ Christopher Hitchens…

70. ‘Hitch 22,’ Christopher Hitchens…

Hitch 22,’ Christopher Hitchens

I only really knew Hitchens as one of the leading ‘New Atheists‘ best exemplified by this youtube clip of himself, cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, neuroscientist Sam Harris and evolutionary biologist (and believer-baiter) Richard Dawkins sitting around, drinking and discussing the dangers of religion. Since I read my first Sam Harris last month, saw a talk by the fascinating philosopher-scientist Dennett at Hay last week, and recently blogged on Dawkins being in my Top 10 of authors, it made sense to finally post a review of pretty much the first book I read when I got to Guatemala six months ago, Hitchens‘ autobiography, where I discovered that he is as much known for his political leanings as his religious ones.

Early on in this collection of uneven reflections, ‘Hitch’ gives us this quote:

“‘Until you have done something for humanity,’ said the great American educator Horace Mann, ‘you should be ashamed to die.’ Well, how is one to stand that test?…”

But what a great test to measure yourself by!

The book contains a plethora (one of my favourite words, incidentally), of interesting ideas and trivia, from linguistics:

“The Maltese tongue is a dialect version of the Arabic spoken in the Maghreb…If you happen to attend a Maltese Catholic church during Mass, you will see the priest raising the Communion Host and calling on ‘Allah,’ because this after all is the local word for ‘god’…”

to the Oxbridge divide:

“‘At least Oxford spies for us,’ as one portly academic once put it to me,’while Cambridge seems to prefer to spy for the other side’…”

A typically vivid metaphor on visiting Cuba to see (and soon become disillusioned by) the revolutionary spirit there:

“Once you have been told that you can’t leave a place, its attractions may be many but its charm will instantly be void. A cat may stay contentedly in one spot for hours at a time, but detain it in that spot by grasping its tail and it will try to tear out its own tail at the roots…”


Describing his early political education, and the understatement inherent in the catchphrase of the ”other half,’ (which Hitch would be pleased to know is now represented by the more accurate 99%):

“…some of the visiting preachers on Sundays were unpolished ministers from tough working-class parishes, who gave us some idea how the other half (actually very much more than half) lived…”

On the 1968 uprisings in France:

“I shall never forget how the workers at the Berliet factory rearranged the big letters of the company name to read ‘Liberté‘ right over the factory gate…”

I guess the razor makers at Gillette weren’t taking part, otherwise they could have been joined by ‘Égalité.’

(OK, I know it doesn’t quite work, but I found it funny).

The humour comes through in many places, not least in this genius footnote when he describes:

“…a Gogol-like ghost job which I held for about six months before its editor said something to me that made it impossible to go on working for him. *

* ‘You’re fired,’ were the exact words as I remember them…”

On legendary English writer (and drinker) Kingsley Amis:

Kingsley had become increasingly vocally right-wing, it often seeming to outsiders that he was confusing the state of the country with the state of his own liver…”kingsley_amis-on_drink

On appreciating (and eventually moving to) the land across the pond:

“A crucial part of seeing America was also seeing how many Americas there were…”

On Salman Rushdie and the fallout of The Satanic Verses:

“He ignited one of the greatest-ever confrontations between the ironic and the literal mind: a necessary attrition which is always going on in some form…”

and on the same subject:

“It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humour, the individual, and the defence of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship…”

A better balance-sheet of life I can’t think of right now.

At one point in this wide-ranging memoir, we learn a shocking fact about the increasing mental instability of Saddam Hussein:

“He had a whole Koran written in his own blood…”

And finally, the most touching chapter, (in contrast to early extravagances, such as an entire section dedicated to debating whether he is a Chris or a Christopher), was on a US soldier who died after enlisting partially based on reading Hitchens‘ writings. The author became close to the soldier’s family after his death, eventually attending the funeral service when, as he describes with a beautiful, heart-breaking phrase:

“…tears seemed as natural as breathing…”


Posted by on June 3, 2013 in BOOKS


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42. ‘A.A.Gill Is Away’…

42. ‘A.A.Gill Is Away’…

A.A.Gill Is Away,’ A.A.Gill

You know the rules of creating a mix tape. I know the rules of making a mix tape. Anyone who knows what a cassette tape is knows the rules of making a mix tape. There are indigenous peoples living in huts in parts of the world untouched by modern society who, given a tape-to-tape stereo system, a stack of albums and a blank C60 tape would instinctively know the rules of making a mix tape. And yet here I am, less than a year into this blog, breaking the book blog equivalent.

Yes, with hundreds of read books to choose from, I am already writing a second review of an author I have already reviewed.

The problem is, his books are just so damn readable, (apart from his singular love of the bizarre term ‘hugger-mugger’: five times in a 300-page book, A.A? Really?). This one was a compilation of his early travel writing, (he is a reviewer of everything from TV programmes to restaurants to foreign countries for a variety of English newspapers and magazines and, according to the blurb, ‘one of the most feared writers in Britain‘), and since I have leanings in that direction myself, I like to keep an eye on the competition.

Gill is not only eminently readable, but also eminently quotable: by the end of the reading, there were no less than 22 Post-It notes poking out from the pages, waiting to be returned to and entered here, possibly a record so far. Why do I enjoy his writing so much? A commonality of taste must be one explanation: a love of travel mixed with an apparent addiction to bad puns, (chapter titles included: ‘Born To Be Riled’ for the chapter on California, ‘Hunforgiven’ for a jaunt across Germany, and the self-explanatory ‘Mad In Japan’).

The native Scot also does a good line in biting insults, (how often must he meet a celebrity he has offended? a city? an entire country?!), but probably more importantly, he clearly has a deep love of similes and metaphors, with the knack of spotting the perfect comparison to make you not only wish you’d thought of it before, but realise you had seen it before, just never made the connection. (The prefect example was this definition of the evolution of Fidel Castro’s communist stronghold:

“Forty years later, Cuba is famous for failed politics, syncopated music, immoral women and cigars, and if an island could be a person, then Cuba would be Bill Clinton…”

Or how about this unshakeable image from Tanzania:

“Hippos look and sound like the House of Commons. Fat, self-satisfied gents with patronizing smirks and fierce pink short-sighted eyes in wrinkled gray suits going ‘haw-haw’ and telling each other dirty jokes…”

Finally, Gill writes like a slightly crazy, probably slightly tipsy uncle at a family reunion, regaling you with tales of far-off lands and offering often unsought, but sometimes invaluable advice. For me, a budding author, this one came towards the end of the book, (in my least favourite chapter, a self-indulgent tale of how he came to own his first Rolls Royce, not entirely fitting with the travel theme):

“My advice to all aspiring writers: always get an agent with a really extravagant motor and an unfeasibly pretty wife. They only get 10 percent. Think what you can do with the other 90…”

And as both a traveler, and a potential travel writer, these two pearls of uncly wisdom came in the introduction:

“One of the most important reasons to travel is to learn to be a foreigner…”

“I’m a reluctant travel writer. I don’t read other people’s travel writing. I can never get over the feeling that I’m subsidizing someone else’s holiday…”


“It’s time to go. It was time to go before I got here…”

“…a family that befitted Monaco. A trailer-trash aristocracy. A princeling who was so characterless he’d get off in a police line-up of one…”

on GERMANY (specifically, the newly built Reichstag building):

“Norman Foster is having a party to hand over his beautiful re-creation to the city. It’s very impressive, with its glass dome and mirrored funnel for extracting all the hot air of German irregular verbs…”


“Patagonia is unfeasibly beautiful and vast. The beauty never lets up, it is like ocular tinnitus, a repetitive deafening of the eye…”

(‘ocular tinnitus’? What an amazing turn of phrase…)

“The girls are beautiful and bewitching, and they maybe know ways of not having sex that even the Vatican hasn’t considered. One of them is the tango. On every street corner and bar there are people being in flagrante tangoed…”

on CUBA (another genius metaphor):

“There’s music and mess and clots of policemen and 1950’s cars and posters of Che. It’s Che that really does it, really reminds you that this is the last untidied student bedroom in the world…”

on being asked to direct a PORN MOVIE (a hilarious, informative article):

“An American computer company wanted to advertise the power of the Internet by listing the top ten most popular sites. It gave up, because all of them were porn. In fact, the top twenty sites are all porn with the singular exception of the Mormons’ Doomsday Census…”


“Ask anyone who lives here what the best thing about LA is and the answer is invariably valet parking. And that tells you about everything you need to know about LA…”

on INDIA (a fittingly wide-ranging report, which staggered from the humorously scatological to the fascinatingly factual to the deeply thought-provoking):

“…farting in India is playing Raj roulette with the linen…”

“There are more beggars in Soho than there are in Bombay…”

“India is a poor place, but only in economic terms. On any other scale you care to think of, it’s rich beyond the dreams of avarice…if we measure wealth in terms of any of the things that really matter – family, spirituality, manners, inquisitiveness, inventiveness, dexterity, culture, history and food – then India would be hosting the next G7 conference and sending charity workers to California…”

on ETHIOPIA (a name apparently meaning ‘sunburnt people‘ in Greek):

“Ethiopia is the only African country that was never a European colony…”

(Can this be true? If so, it may well be the most amazing fact I have learned this year!)

“I try to make some sense out of the royal family, but it’s like juggling mud…”

(I need to start thinking more in similes…)

on UGANDA (mostly consisting of a damning indictment of Big Pharma):

“Have you ever stopped to think how weird it is that you have to take malaria pills to go to places where the population doesn’t take them? Or that you you get injections for yellow fever, cholera, typhus and hepatitis? None of the locals are immune to these things. They just suffer them…?

Finally, no compilation of travel writing would be complete without an (admittedly wholly accurate, and fairly mild) dig at the French, (whilst simultaneously defending the US, no less):

“Europeans who have grown up with American films, music and soda imagine they know who and what America is. Put that the other way round and consider what you’d know about France based solely on French TV and pop music. There is French TV by the way, just nobody watches it – not even the French…”

Time to find every other A.A.Gill book I can get my mitts on…


Posted by on October 14, 2012 in BOOKS


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