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The Elves of Cintra, by Terry Brooks

I listened to The Elves of Cintra audiobook, brilliantly narrated by Phil Gigante.

I have fond memories of the Shannara books. I *think* it was recommended to me by a school friend back in the late 80s and I had a copy of The Sword of Shannara from the library at the Army Apprentices’ College in Harrogate when I had my accident in 1989. In those days I read fantasy pretty much exclusively and the derivative nature of Sword didn’t bother me at all.

I also have a memory of lying in my bunk at the apprentices’ college reading the Scions of Shannara when midnight struck into my 19th birthday and then I continued through that quadrilogy during the next phase of surgeries on my leg.

I’m not sure why I didn’t follow up when Terry Brooks wrote more and more Shannara books at the time, but I’m making up for it now and going right back to the beginning of the Word and the Void series.

The Word and the Void

The Genesis of Shannara trilogy follows on from the Word and the Void trilogy, so we’re now still in the real world, but after the apocalypse.

What apocolypse?

Exactly!

There are demons and mutated humans out to kill everyone, humans and elves both — but where the fuck did the elves come from if we’re supposed to be in the real world? I don’t feel like that is ever really explained. Maybe they were always there. Maybe they still are!

And why do the demons want to kill everyone? Just because that’s what demons do? What would they do if there was no one left to kill? Just chill I suppose.

And how the the demons that are in the Forbidding get put there? And when? In between the two trilogies? It’s never mentioned in the Word and the Void, so I’m guessing so?

I’d like to have more of the tale of what happened between the two trilogies. Maybe that comes in the Gypsy Morph? The old King of the Silver River pulls that old Allanon trick of not revealing everything to the young hero because it would be too much or some pish like that, and I found that kind of annoying. Very Terry Brooksy as tropes go. Just give the hero all the info and he might just win the battle a little easier? Hmmm.

What happened to Nest Freemark?

What happened to the fucking world?

And those feeders, what are they all about? They’re always there but they don’t serve the story at all.

And the elves? Where did they come from? Oh, wait, I already asked that, didn’t I?

How does Candle have foresight? What’s the deal with the lady from the Welsh valleys that hands out Knight of the Word staffs?

The characters are pretty wooden and tropey, but they serve the story well enough and the lack of detail into their motivations keeps the story moving along pretty fast I suppose.

I tell you what though, if all these loose ends aren’t wrapped up in the Gypsy Morph, I’ll… I’ll …

… probably keep reading the next books anyway. Who am I kidding?

Stalin’s Scribe, Brian J. Boeck

I bought Stalin’s Scribe on a whim whilst on holiday in the town of my Alma Mater, St Andrews university. It was my first time visiting Toppings Books and I happily spent a few hours in there.

I’ve had a fascination with the Stalin era of the Soviet Union since my army days when I studied GCSE Russian Studies and wrote a paper on the show trials and purges.

You might find this a little hard to believe, but I had never heard of Sholokhov, or his famous novel The Quiet Don. Why should it be hard to believe? Because I studied Russian language and literature for four years and spent years living in the former Soviet Union. When I saw the book in Toppings, I thought I was buying a book written about Stalin by his official scribe!

So, even though I thought I was reading something else entirely, I found myself completely drawn in anyway.

On the face of it, it’s about an author whose magnum opus ‘The Quiet Don’ is iffy at best because of plagiarism charges levelled against Sholokhov, and who wrote very little of note after that. But there is so much more to it than that.

It’s about an author who was able to navigate the tricky political landscape and still managed to stay alive, become wealthy and even win the Nobel Prize for Literature. That in itself makes for a good story, and that is exactly what this book turned out to be.

Sholokhov was not afraid of speaking truth to power and was able to use his influence over the years, including instigating the release of 3 political prisoners released from the clutches of the NKVD after he’d learned of the truth behind the great terror.

Not only did Sholokhov manage to keep from being imprisoned, exiled or shot, he also managed to stay in the good books of the leaders of the Soviet Union right up to the present, as it is mentioned in the afterword that Putin visited Sholokhov’s home in Vioshki in 2005 to mark the centenary of Sholokhov’s birth.

The writing style of the book made it easy to read. The research was well done and obviously extensive. It did seem to jump forward in time pretty fast towards the end, but I guess that’s because there wasn’t much else to say? Maybe it was edited down to make it shorter and an easier read? I’m sure it could quite easily have been twice as long.

It was interesting to read that there are still documents in locked archives.

“Though some of his secrets no doubt remain buried deep in closed archives, his contributions to Soviet history can now be recognized.”

P338

Sholokhov seemed to be ahead of his time in the way that he perceived the dangers of Soviet policy. First he spoke of the failings of the agricultural policy as he saw them when Stalin launched collectivisation. He saw what was happening on the front during the war and was able to see through the propaganda with his mind before seeing it with his own eyes.

And later on, the 23rd Party Congress in 1966:

The remaining environmental portions of the speech still packed a few punches. He accused an unnamed factory of criminal indifference to poisoning the Volga River and killing between 11 and 22 million fish.

He claimed that the “glorious sea, sacred Baikal” was in danger from the felling of forests and the construction of cellulose paper industries along its pristine shores. He cited statistics about the dumping of waste water into the Don River and condemned the tenfold decline in the number of fish. In spite of key deletions, he still skewered the Fisheries Minister for bringing the Azov sea basin to “the edge of catastrophe.” Sholokhov was the only keynote speaker at the congress who spoke of nature as something more than a resource for immediate economic exploitation.

Dozens of other speeches emphasized the conquering of nature for industrial growth, but his was the only one to even mention the problem of industrial waste.

P300

I took some personal pleasure at the reference to Santa Barbara in the afterword. I spent a year in Odessa from 1995-96 and my landlady was obsessed with that show!

Book Review: Long Shadows, High Hopes: The Life and Times of Matt Johnson & The The

I put Long Shadows High Hopes on my Kindle in June 2018 and was super excited to read it. Why then did it take me this long to finish it? Let’s just call it inertia. See what I did there?

I found the opening chapters rather a slog, so I’m sure that had something to do with my lack of progress. Of course I do understand that the book had to start at the beginning, and I was going through a ‘not reading physical words’ phase. Most of my books are consumed in audiobook format.

Goodreads says I started reading it on 9 May 2019 so not as bad as I thought, but still …

I picked it back up this month and this time it took. I spent time reading it and listening through the back catalogue of The The’s albums, which a lot of the time meant I would stop reading and just listen to the music again, in my new home office with my studio monitors actually installed properly. And boy oh boy, what an experience!

Neil Fraser has clearly grown up with Matt Johnson’s music in his ears. This is a book written by someone who knows what they’re talking about. It really helped that context about the political landscape was included, although it could hardly not be, given Matt’s lyrics.

All the legal stuff was pretty grim to read about, the initial Cherry Red contract through to the collapse of the Sony deal. I guess it’s still the same now, only it’s Spotify et al who are raping the artists. I know that one of my other favourite artists, Suzanne Vega, has been going through legal battles to get her back catalogue released, going so far as to rerecord her catalogue for her compilation albums (which are great, by the way!) At least now there are more accessible avenues for self distribution, and the The The fan site takeover was a genius move.

Matt Johnson at Glasgow Barrowlands on the The The Comeback Special Tour, 4 September 2018. 
Long Shadows High Hopes Review
© 2018 Cams Campbell

I’m super glad that the book got as far as the Comeback Special Tour of 2018. I did manage to get a ticket for the Glasgow Barrowland gig and it was fucking superb. I was also pleased to read about the gig at the same venue in 1993, the one where Johnny Marr showed up. I was at that one too, although that was in my drinking years and I’m not sure how much of it I remember. Not much to be honest. The Comeback tour though – I was sober for that and got pretty close to the front. If you’ve been to the Barrowland, you’ll know what that means. What a show.

Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom neon sign at night.
© 2016 Cams Campbell

Of course Matt’s story isn’t done yet, and that’s a beautiful thing. We can look forward to whatever Matt’s working on, knowing pretty much that we’re gonna love it whatever it is. I wasn’t a super fan of Burning Blue Soul, but other than that, Matt’s oeuvre has accompanied me through life and has helped me and inspired me more than he will ever know.

Those inertia years though. Jeezo. I can so relate to that, albeit without being a recording artist. I particularly enjoyed reading that part of the book, about the inspiration coming from The Inertia Variations by John Tottenham and the death of Andy.

Quotes and Comments

I highlighted some passages and made notes as I read through the book and I’ll share them here.

Amongst the wall-to-wall requests for musicians, or budding musicians, into the Pistols or The Clash, he spied one that was different. Looking for a bass/lead guitarist into Velvets/Syd Barrett.

Location 1358

Well, well, well. The Velvets and Syd Barrett. Of course! I’d have been tempted to reply to that ad myself!

‘Red Cinders’ begins with a muffled drum loop that spends a minute accompanied by flashes of noise stabs, the whole thus far being a good demonstration of how exposure to the studio had heightened his appreciation of the atmospherics he had discovered in film soundtracks as a boy. At one minute a guitar riff bursts into play and disappears almost at once to allow another, much funkier drum loop to take over, again with various noises put through various effects boxes. Around halfway things take a more industrial turn and the track continues in this vein. Although it is perhaps a minute too long it serves as a good introduction to the album, letting listeners know that they are going to be taken on a journey of some kind, something that the album cover probably gave away before the vinyl was put onto the turntable.

Location 2218

I loved that the book goes into individual tracks in this way. I didn’t hear Burning Blue Soul until it was rereleased on CD and I never cared for it much to be honest. It was nice getting some context from the book and relistening to it. I particularly enjoyed learning about the studio techniques Matt was using then, and of course about how he picked up those techniques through his time at De Wolfe.

From the beginning the conjoined twins of ‘Cold Spell Ahead’ were separated. The first half of that track was the source material and the latter section was forgotten about. The job was to now transform the sound and effectively create a new song. Three key instruments made this possible. Firstly there was an upgrade in rhythm box. The Roland 808 drum machine was much more effective at creating a driving rhythm, its continuing use some three decades and more later testament to its qualities. Over its insistent groove came an equally rhythmic bass line, played by Matt on Thorne’s electric Fender Precision bass guitar. It was also the first time he played on a Rickenbacker twelve-string, which he employed for the main rhythm and riff parts. With the rhythm in place the rest came easy and strings from Thorne’s trusty Synclavier were brought in at intervals along with some sax and flute by Crispin Cioe of the Uptown Horns. The final, and what turned out to be winning element, was provided by an instrument that Matt had become transfixed with on a shopping trip to Manny’s on 48th Street, New York’s ‘Music Row’.

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It was a xylimba, a mallet percussion instrument, with wooden keys over a single box resonator. This was used to add another, much faster, rhythmic groove. The decision to open the track with this riff was a master-stroke. The first few bars of the finished ten-minute recording consist of the xylimba pattern and 808 hi-hat taps, with the 808 kick drum introduced for a few bars before a snare fill brings the guitar riff in and the song suddenly fills out in all its recognisable glory. By delaying the start of the song-proper in this way, Thorne provided club DJs with the sort of intro that could be used to mix from one track to another and, when the song was familiar, announce its presence in a way that was designed to get people onto the dance floor.

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I LOVE this kind of detail! It also inspired me to look up Cold Spell Ahead and I found a recording on YouTube. I’d heard OF it, but not actually heard it. And so that wonderful sound is a xylimba – now I know!

One thing that helped grease the wheels of the Some Bizzare social scene, and enhance the sense that they were a band apart, was ecstasy. Some five or six years in advance of the ‘discovery’ of the drug by a group of DJs and clubbers in Ibiza, there was an even more exclusive coterie of people who had experienced it at a time when hardly anybody outside of America had heard of it. Johnson was initiated via Stevo and Marc Almond. “There was this girl who used to bring them in, Cindy Ecstasy was her name. You know those coat hangers that have that white cardboard strip on them, I suppose to stop the trousers getting creased? She would put the pills all the way along the inside of those, on all her clothes, taking a hell of a risk, and you would get a phone call, ‘Cindy’s in town’, or ‘Cindy’s coming to town’, and we’d all meet up in a friend’s flat in Knightsbridge. It blew my mind the first time I took it, and I think it was a lot stronger back then, though everyone says that don’t they. But it was powerful stuff and we got quite heavily into it, and so that influenced Soul Mining.”

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It was super interesting to read about the drugs that Matt and the band were using at the time. I’m no stranger to some of these myself, but I had no idea that it was going on in the UK as early as it was.

[I’ve Been Waiting for Tomorrow All My Life] Ignoring the philosophical nuggets that this idea throws up it is clear to see that this lyric is Johnson’s first overtly political one, as he rails against society and what he sees as the machinery that has created it. The lines, I’ve been filled with useless information/Spewed out by papers and radio stations, about the subtle propaganda of the state, were written a few years before Margaret Thatcher was famously quoted, in a Woman’s Own interview, as saying there was no such thing as society, intent as her government was on completely reshaping it.

Location 3018

Matt Johnson, the prophet, something he would prove to be more than once. It’s crazy how much his art shows the hypocrisy and the intent of politics and politicians, crazy but beautiful. I would love to see what kind of lyrics Matt would be writing today, right now, if he were to get in a flow state and let the energy flow through his brilliant mind.

After a serious amount of head-scratching and discussion it was decided that the beautiful-sounding Yamaha C3 baby grand piano sitting there in the live room might be the answer, and Annie Roseberry, who had made the suggestion, was asked if she knew of a good candidate. She suggested Jools Holland, who had tinkled the ivories with Squeeze until they had split the previous year, and was now better known as compere of Channel 4 music show The Tube. It proved to be an inspired choice, as Johnson was to relate to Kevin Foakes at an event to celebrate the reissued box set of Soul Mining some thirty-one years later.

Location 3057

It proved to be an inspired choice? A-fucking-men to that! Although DC Collard also crushed it on the Comeback tour. It was great to read that passage about Jools’ coming by, nailing the solo and then them all going out for breakfast. It’s always been one of those stand-out musical moments for me that solo.

There were also a fair number of distractions. Moving into his own place in Carysfort Road was one of them, and the freedom to party was another. By this stage the goings-on at Stevo’s house in Hammersmith were well on the way to getting out of control, as many of the participants are willing to testify. Mal Mallinder from Cabaret Voltaire remembers going round all the time. “Stevo’s house in Hammersmith was like the gang headquarters. You couldn’t be on Some Bizzare and not go round his house. You would go there before a night out, or you would end up there after you’d been on a night out.” According to Skinner, “Stevo would make you listen to this dark industrial music on speakers the size of doors and you couldn’t escape, you had to listen. He decided you were listening. And he would do this with journalists too, or record company heads.” It was like Stevo, at some point, decided to throw a party and the thing just carried on, for days, weeks, months. It was relentless. Johnson’s own recollections sum up the general vibe.

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I had to send this to one of my pals, as this could have been written about him. Just change the name Stevo to Rossco, ha ha. I spent many nights in his flat in Edinburgh being made to listen to Ministry, Front 242, Revolting Cocks and a mix tape he’d made called ‘the Car Crash Tape’. I was yearning for Wish You Were Here and a crash, but never got that until long after the sun had come up.

‘Sweet Bird Of Truth’, written at the tail-end of 1985 and recorded in January 1986, detailed the thoughts of an American pilot whose plane has been brought down over the Gulf of Arabia. There was no doubt a certain amount of unease amongst the CBS executives when they considered that the lyrics echoed reality somewhat, as during the raid on Libya, an American F-111 bomber had been shot down over the Gulf of Sidra, killing both pilots. If truth be told, Johnson himself was somewhat spooked by fact following fiction so rapidly, though he was to point out to more than one journalist who interviewed him at this time that the gift of prophecy was hardly required, just a television set and an interest in the news. The words of the song had come in a sudden rush one night when he was on ecstasy.

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I was fascinated to read about the words coming in a ‘sudden rush one night when he was on ecstasy’. I’ve read a lot recently about the use of MDMA in therapy sessions and have long held a personal belief that it can open up channels to the source without the energy’s being corrupted in the way that alcohol can corrupt it. For the record I’ve been in recovery from alcoholism for 15 years and have ‘some experience’ with drugs. I choose other means of connection now though.

The song had been banned by Radio 1, for the use of the word ‘piss’, but as most intelligent observers noted, this was an accurate way of describing the sort of soulless shopping centres in the deprived heartlands of Britain. The moral arbiters of taste didn’t see it that way and demanded that an edit of the track with the offending phrase removed was done before airplay could be granted. ‘Heartland’ may well be Johnson’s greatest achievement. Historian and analyst of UK foreign policy, Mark Curtis, thinks so. “I heard Infected when I was a postgrad student at the LSE. It was probably ‘Heartland’ that really struck me first – just an extraordinary song and words. **‘Heartland’, I would say, is the greatest political lyric in British music.” **

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Yep. It’s certainly the political lyric that woke me up and it’s as relevant today as it ever was.

“Mind Bomb was done on magic mushrooms; I had piles of books… I was meditating… doing all sorts of really deep, freakish things and getting into all this heavy Islamic stuff. Also Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism. I was trying to use consciousness as a type of microscope/telescope to delve deeper into the world around me. Ultimately, I did freak myself out a bit as I probably went too far but, in the end, everything seemed to simply boil down to love and fear and the realisation that all we see in this life is a manifestation of one of these opposing frequencies. I was also keenly aware, though, how the ego can pollute these kind of enquiries and mess everything up.”

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The book was worth reading for this paragraph alone. It has me wishing I could hang out with Matt Johnson sometime and have a conversation about these kinds of things.

It also inspires to to do things like write a book review, something I don’t think I’ve ever done before. I dunno, maybe I did in high school, but I doubt it, given how wayward I was back then!

Why Did I Never Create?

Reading Long Shadows, High Hopes has made me ask questions of myself and wonder why the fuck I never even considered trying to be creative as a teen / twenty-something. Music was the biggest thing for us next to BMX riding, and it remains so today. I do play, but I’ve never felt that URGE to write that I get from reading about Matt’s younger years.

Is it too late? Is it fuck. I’m going to write. I’m buzzing on the back of having read this book and from some of the content I’ve been watching by young content creators who seem to be fearless in putting out their thoughts and opinions. Does it matter if I have an audience? Hell no! I’m going to keep doing it until I run out of things to say, and if it appeals to anyone, so much the better, but if it doesn’t, I’ll feel good about getting thoughts out of my head anyway.

On the Road

It’s perhaps interesting that the book I finished just before I got through Long Shadows, High Hopes was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I have some journal entries that I wrote whilst reading that that are along the same lines as what I’ve just written about creativity. I found that book to be incredibly inspiring and got me thinking that some of my experiences are actually pretty interesting and could make for some good content.

Matt’s Back Catalogue

It feels like I’ll be in a The The consumption phase for quite a while now after having read this book. For one thing, how come I never got into NakedSelf? That’s just weird. I put it down to timing – in 2000 I was working overseas, although that didn’t stop me from finding Kid A. I didn’t listen to NakedSelf until just last week and I’ve listened to it twice today already. I put it on my AirPods walking through Glasgow at night a couple of nights ago and it was spectacular.

I have seen Johanna St Michaels’s Inertia Variations, but it’s not available anywhere that I can find right now and I would dearly like to watch it again. Shame.

“The Human Race is about to Reap What it Sows.”

aRMAGEDDON DAYS (ARE HERE AGAIN)

Rating

It has to be five stars from me for this one. It’s not even up for debate. A solid, indisputable five stars. Well written, well researched, detailed

Ali Abdaal has Inspired Me BIG TIME!

Who the fuck is Ali Abdaal? I didn’t know either, until lunch time today. Since then, he’s changed my life.

I don’t know if you know, but my mental health hasn’t always been great. I came out of a bipolar downswing at the beginning of this week, a downswing that I wasn’t even really aware that I was in until I wasn’t. And it felt fucking amazing. Wheeeee! I was feeling a glow, an energy, positivity in waves that I hadn’t felt for months.

That led to productivity. I can do anything when I’m on an upswing; everything seems possible. All the ideas and plans that I had on my last upswing suddenly feel good again. Time to get to work!

Knowledge Working Space

I’ve always been interested in the knowledge working space. I remember signing up for Backpack in around 2006, listening to Merlin Mann’s interview with David Allen of Getting Things Done, reading David Sparks’ posts about OmniFocus, reading Shawn Blanc, starting a blog, and another blog, and a music website and a photography website.

Then the downswing would come and everything would seem pointless and I’d feel like I was a fraud. ‘Who cares, right?’.

I’ve been going through these ups and downs for as long as I can remember. Now I’m in an upswing and feeling like it will never end, and so I’m going to go with that and not think about the fact that it always does end. But I’m going to try and ‘bank some creative capital’ this time, and every time from now on.

Ali Abdaal

This is where Ali Abdaal comes in.

Let’s rewind a little, back to a couple of weeks ago when I discovered a new-ish note-taking service called Roam Research. I can’t remember how I found it. No, wait, it was from one of my favourite newsletters, Iain Broome’s. He just happened to mention it on his Substack blog.

I signed up because it sounded fantastic, but the upswing hadn’t kicked in and I did nothing with it until this weekend. I’ve spent the last two days watching YouTube videos on how it works, and that was how I found Ali Abdaal. I’ve watched four or five of his videos today and am now reading one of three books that he recommended.

Side note: this is another danger zone for me on an upswing - I buy stuff like I had ALL the money! I even made a note in my journal to reign that in this time around, because it never ends well. And of course I can justify every single purchase! I'm now staring at the Joker keyboard on the IQUNIX store and trying hard not to buy it (I already ordered a Keychron K4 earlier in the week --- oops!)

But the books, right. I’m now reading Show Your Work, by Austin Kleon. It’s really good.

I’m highlighting it in the Kindle app, which highlights will then be added to a page in Roam Research via Readwise. It’s the sort of workflow that really excites me. Naturally it’s going to involve buying a subscription both to Roam Research AND Readwise when the trials are up. This is what I was talking about!

Banking Creative Capital

Ali talks about passive income in this video.

He’s a doctor, working for the NHS in the UK. And he’s making a comfortable living making content and from affiliate marketing. But wait, he’s a doctor? Working for the NHS? I’ve been around UK hospitals enough to have an idea of how much work that is. And I’M complaining that I don’t have time to make videos? What?

Nuts, right?

Not only that, but Ali’s down-to-earth style in his videos really appeals to me and makes me feel a little less like an impostor. So, that’s why I’m feeling inspired af right now. I have multiple projects in my head, some of which have content created going back to June 2019 and which I’ve done fuck all with because ‘I don’t have time’. So from now one, whenever I think I don’t have time, I’ll remind myself that I’m not a junior doctor for the NHS and stop fucking complaining!

So while I’m feeling positive, I’m going to get to work with some content and a new website that’s in the works for my network marketing ideas. I know from having been part of the knowledge space for a long time that consistency is perhaps the main ingredient when it comes to algorithms and audience building, so if I can just get enough content ready and schedule it out, it could just work.

I think it’s that lack of consistency that has held me back. I hear YouTubers talking about how they’ve been on YouTube forever, meaning five years. I published my first video in 2007 before even Google bought it. But I’m not going to regret the past; I’m going to start today and send a big shoutout of gratitude to Ali.

THANKS ALI!

**Featured Image copyright Ali Abdaal.

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This came along at a good time for me. I discovered it via an excellent post by Merlin Mann on his 43folders.com website, entitled No One Needs Permission to be Awesome, in which he states:

If that sounds like fancy incense for hippies and children, perhaps in a way that seems frankly un-doable for someone as practical and important and immortal as yourself, then go face death. Go get cancer. Or, go get crushed by a horse Or, go get hit by a van. Or, go get separated from everything you ever loved forever.

The part in bold is the part that relates to Viktor Frankl.

I’ve been in the 12-step AA program for over 5 years now and it has helped me immensely in finding meaning. The whole idea of ‘not regretting the past nor wishing to shut the door on it’ ties in nicely with Viktor Frankl’s philosophy.

I shan’t give a synopsis of the book. Amazon does that nicely. What I will do is illustrate the parts that jumped out at me.

Firstly, it’s okay not to be happy. There is huge potential for growth in suffering. This I have learned for myself, but to have it set down on paper with such great examples is very helpful to me.

Next, the true meaning of one’s life may not be truly discernible until one reaches the end of one’s life. People can actually change; this I know to be true through AA. The example he gives is of a doctor who was monstrous during the holocaust, but about whom he heard tales of goodness years later.

More may come back to me and I really shouldn’t be attempting to write this in the few minutes that I have, but I know that if I don’t write it now, it may not get written at all!

The first half of the book is about Frankl’s time in concentration camps. The second half covers his philosophy of logotherapy (meaning therapy), which he had started to formulate before being arrested and deported to the camps. He actually refused to emigrate to the safety of the USA, knowing full well that he would end up in a concentration camp, because he felt it was his duty to remain with his family. His expectant wife, brother and both parents did not survive the camps. Imagine finding meaning after that? But he does.

If 42 no longer suffices for you as an answer, try this book. It could help!

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

My rating: 4 of 5 stars (link to Goodreads)

What a cracker of a book! This was my first read on the Kindle and I have to say that it’s a very good way to consume a book. Between the Kindle app on the iPhone, Kindle 3G and iPad, it was easy to read small chunks or large chunks as time permitted.

I recently read Grapes of Wrath and went straight on to East of Eden. Steinbeck is without doubt one of my favourite writers; it’s just something about his knack of writing about the human spiritual condition that I can really relate to.

It’s quite a grand tale in terms of the span of time it covers, but in essence it’s the tale of two brothers from birth to death. The tale of how the brothers’ father comes into his own is handled very well and shows that we can shape our own destiny.

I don’t really know how to put into words the sense of spiritual well being that I get from Steinbeck’s novels. He lived in a different time in a different place, but still I can relate to his characters so well. It’s the human flaws, the inner monologues and struggles, the spiritual condition, all of those things make it seem so real. It’s philosophical, that’s what it is. I’m just at the right age for discovering Steinbeck’s masterpieces really.

Granta 64. Russia: The Wild East

I bought this book years ago and read only one or two stories in it. The two chapters that stand out now were the two that I read back then too. The first is called the Last 18 Drops and is about alcoholism in Russia, two things I know about. Did you know that if you finish a bottle of vodka and then sit it down on its side for a while, you’ll get 18 drops out of it? I’ve not tried it myself, but the author swears it’s true.

The other story that stood out was that of a mother seeking her son’s body after he’s killed in Chechnya. It brings that situation to life in a moving way.

The rest of the book was pretty forgettable. In fact it’s not that long since I finished it and the only other story that springs to mind is about the Romanovs, which was pretty dull, and a short story about a soldier coming home to his village and following a girl around like a lost sheep. Also pretty dull.

Eight Lives Down, Major Chris Hunter

I served with Chris back in 89 when he was an apprentice in the Royal Corps of Signals and he was always a switched on cookie. I discovered this book about a year ago on Facebook from someone else who served with us. I bought this and his second book, Extreme Risk, and read the second one first. I’m not sure why I did that, but in any event it didn’t really matter.

It follows Chris’s life from his arrival in Iraq to his departure and is quite an eye-opener. It is, as you would expect, full of military jargon, some of which I had forgotten. I’m not just talking about the abbreviation soup either; soldiers tend to form their own language and, after a while, it can become indecipherable to anyone else. As a linguist, of course I find this quite fascinating! It does, however, mean that you may have trouble with some of the vocabulary but it doesn’t detract from the book at all.

Chris does touch upon the strain that his chosen career had on his family life and it makes the book so much more real because of that. It must’ve been difficult to share such private thoughts in a novel, but it’s that that makes it work.

It does make me wonder what sort of thing I’d have been doing if I had stayed in, but I’m quite sure it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as crazy as what Chris was doing! I hope one day to get a chance to sit down with him over a pint or two and hear some sandbag stories first hand, but until I do, I’ve got his books.

If you enjoy these sorts of books, you won’t go far wrong with this and Extreme Measures. They are true, accurate and well-written accounts of what it’s like in danger zones that go way beyond what the media portrays.

The Spirit Wrestlers, Philip Marsden


A fascinating and well-written insight into the Russian Soul, filled with interesting characters and anecdotes. For anyone that’s spent any time in the former Soviet Union, you will find much to relate to in the book.

The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry

I’ve long been a fan of Stephen Fry’s. I hadn’t read his first autobiography (I’m reading it now, as it happens) and wondered whether I ought to before I read this one, but as I had this as an iPhone app, it was just too convenient to read on the go.

I enjoy reading Stephen’s blog, not only because I can relate to the content, but because his use of the English language is simply a joy.

It was really interesting to get his take on such things as low self esteem and addiction. I’m looking forward to the next book, as this one ends with his first line of charlie.