Sunday, 28 April 2013

The New Penguin History Of The World

Just a quick note to lavish some praise on a fine tome, the updated and revised edition of which proudly resides on my bookshelf.  The New Penguin History Of The World, by J M Roberts.

More or less a chronicle of human civilization, it represents a daunting but rewarding read, and it is difficult to imagine that many better books of its type exist, at least in the mainstream.  I myself have been particularly enthused by the chapters dealing with the early civilizations of the Near East and the Mediterranean, and was duly inspired to explore that subject more widely.  I suspect that various portions of this work will have a similar galvanizing effect on others.

This volume manages to cover many bases whilst offering some depth.  It goes in a few unexpected directions, and does not focus undue attention on the most "obvious" and famous developments and events of popular legend, seeking to puncture or lay to rest a few misconceptions and myths along the way. There is a real richness and zest here, and an effort to knit together the various strands to show how civilization evolved and blossomed.

Every home should have one!

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

As a great enthusiast for the works of Hermann Hesse, I like to snap up wherever possible books containing his writings.  One such is The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse, which as the title implies, is a collection of such stories by the great man.

Despite having relished numerous Hesse novels, I was unsure what to expect from this book.  However, as soon as I began to read the first story, those familiar pleasant and organic vibes radiated from the pages,  that unique and intoxicating style which Hesse developed.  The themes and concerns which pervade the writer's novels feature prominently here.  Many of these tales in one way or another deal with matters of self-discovery and spirituality, but others pertain to grimmer affairs.

In contrast to the largely worldly events and thoughts seen in many Hesse novels, this compendium sees a greater stress on the supernatural, perhaps unsurprisingly given the genre involved.  Even so, all of this remains within the loose framework which one would associate with this writer.  Some of the backdrops and imagery are quite exotic, surreal even...

Many of these stories do have morals or messages contained within them (but not rammed down the reader's throat), whilst others are more akin to streams of consciousness or mood pieces. One of the joys of Hesse's writings is that interpretations can be fluid and multi-faceted, this largely stemming from the nature of his preoccupations. The brevity of these pieces, and their streamlined format, helps to give them real impact, as their subject matter tends to be more concentrated.

Of the tales making up this book, ones which I found particularly affecting and intriguing were "The Dwarf", "Augustus" and "Iris".  The last named, and others, encapsulate many of Hesse's recurrent fascinations, including the notions of "returning to mother", "going home" and "oneness"

Much of the final portion of this book is given over to stories which reveal the author's despair concerning political and social trends in the early 20th century.  A relatively strident and unambiguous tone is adopted here, in such tales as "Strange News from Another Planet", "The Forest Dweller", "If The War Continues", "The Empire" and "The European".  In these prescient commentaries on, and indictments of, tyranny, war and intolerance, Hesse sounds notes of dread and foreboding, reflective of those volatile days. That said, I found the tenor to be largely one of defiance rather than resignation.

The language employed in these more "topical" pieces is hardly cryptic or euphemistic, as if Hesse was striving to deliver a stripped down warning, devoid of any scope for misinterpretation.

With translation, and an introduction, by Jack Zipes, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse will enrich and broaden people's appreciation of  the man's visions, outlook and world-view, as well as being an entertaining and stimulating read.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

2013 Bahrain Grand Prix

A clear and fairly resounding victory for Sebastian Vettel, of the type which we seldom witness in this current era of Grand Prix racing.  The margin will have given food for thought for Red Bull's rivals, even if the Sakhir circuit could be tentatively described as a track which suits the Red Bull's characteristics. A marker has definitely been laid down as we enter the European leg of the championship chase.

Although the race for first position lacked genuine tension for the bulk of the contest, much of interest occurred in the chasing pack. Mercedes once again failed to convert promise into genuine success, although in fairness this possibility had been flagged by the pole-sitter Nico Rosberg.  His team-mate Lewis Hamilton had a largely anonymous race, even taking into account his grid penalty.  The team might not yet be the finished article, but the progress and momentum are in a positive direction.

In terms of competitiveness, Bahrain must have represented a boost of sorts for the McLaren team, but this heartening showing may be overshadowed, in media circles at least, by the friction which developed during the race when Jenson Button and Sergio Perez got a little too close for comfort. It is also tempting to argue however, that in some respects, the fact that the two drivers were in such close proximity to each other is a good sign. Would the team rather have this sort of disagreement to iron out, than see the two vehicles touring around blandly and inoffensively in midfield?

It will be interesting to see whether's Perez's improved form unlocks his undoubted potential, and instill added belief. Team politics may become a headache, but the team must also realise that an on-form and motivated Perez is a major asset.  I was also impressed by the young Mexican's mature and constructive remarks after the race, when quizzed about the brush with his team-mate.

If Button imagined that he was the undisputed de facto number one driver in the team, he may be forced to revise his opinion.  I cannot honestly see the usually unflappable Jenson becoming unduly rattled by all this, but the psychology will add an important dimension to proceedings.

The Ferrari team was remaining sanguine in the wake of the race, and with good reason.  Although fortune was not on their side today, the portents still look very favourable. Before problems intervened, the cars were handily positioned.  Once his technical dramas were remedied, Fernando Alonso predictably put up a classy and stout performance, and the Italian marque can look forward to the rest of the reason with optimism and confidence.

Another team still on an upward curve is Lotus, as shown by their occupation of two of the steps on the podium. Perhaps the most significant thing to emerge was the "rebirth" of Romain Grosjean. the man often derided as  the enfant terrible of Formula 1.  This performance was a reminder of his crisp and incisive drives of 2012, which were of course interspersed with various indiscretions.  If Grosjean can "kick on", so to speak, it will have ramifications for his team and his team-mate, and could even conceivably influence the outcome of the championship, with another "wild card" in a competitive machine taking points off the other contenders.  Others have successfully recovered from early-career setbacks and stigmas.  Let us hope that Grosjean has the strength of character to achieve similar.  This podium finish may constitute a launchpad in this regard.

So we now enter the European phase of the campaign.  Red Bull, or at least the one conducted by Vettel, may be in the ascendancy, but last season taught us not to take anything for granted!

Monday, 15 April 2013

Blood On The Tracks - Bob Dylan - album review

It is a truism that albums, or records generally, assume greater personal relevance or resonance if they touch on a raw area of experience for the listener.  The words and themes begin to loom much larger in the consciousness.

For me, an example of this is Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, released in early 1975. Until comparatively recently, I had respected this as a collection of frank, confessional and well-crafted songs, and could understand the eulogies which placed this album among the foremost achievements in Dylan's career. However, listening to it in recent months has infused this music with a new poignancy and power for me.

The writing and recording of this collection of songs took place amid personal turmoil and upheaval for the songwriter.  These factors undoubtedly helped to catalyse matters, although it is also fair to argue that Dylan's artistic vitality was on something of an upswing anyway as the mid-Seventies approached.

In strict musical terms there is little which is out of the ordinary on Blood On The Tracks, but it is the combination of lyrics, and the atmosphere evoked by the melodies and soundscape, which creates the overall effect. In fact, some might find the diet of acoustic guitars a little samey and stodgy, but in general the compelling poetry and songcraft override such qualms.

The record opens with three or four memorable songs, on which much of the album's reputation is founded.

Many people who have never heard the record assume (like I once did) that this is almost a concept album, but I think that this is a misrepresentation.  Yes, the lyrics to most of the tracks address issues of regret, loneliness and melancholy, but there is sufficient variation in context and scenario to make each song self-contained and autonomous.  The opener "Tangled Up in Blue" sets the tone, but it would be a mistake to assume that every song is just a derivation of this one.

The album is filled with powerful tracks, but for me the most affecting by far is "Simple Twist Of Fate".  A masterly amalgam of Dylan's lyrical styles, it achieves the rare distinction of compelling the listener to conjure up visual images, as well as acute emotions, in his or her mind.

"You're A Big Girl Now" has a resolutely mid-Seventies sheen and ambience, reminding me of a oppressively humid and mournful summer's evening.  Some very pleading and heartfelt vocal lines from the great man, and rich but wistful chord changes, contribute to the overall effect.

The next number, "Idiot Wind", almost has a "runaway" quality about it, and the lyrics and singing contain a blend of indignation and resignation.  This is all augmented and complemented by the "airless" production, promoted in part by the organ.

At the mid-point, "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" serves to inject some more simplicity and spontaneity, harking back to Dylan's pre-1967 output, albeit with tinges of the melodic and production motifs which run through this whole album.

Of the later tracks, (I will skip the Dylan-by-numbers of "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts"), the most impactful is the heart-wrenching "If You See Her, Say Hello", which has a genuine pathos, even by the standards of Blood On The Tracks.  The singing also feels spontaneous, rather than the result of some affectation.

"Shelter From The Storm" is another one which is redolent of Dylan's compositions circa 1964/65, but less oblique lyrically, and it retains the interest, and ticks thematic boxes, sufficiently to feel at home in this company.  One of this record's unheralded strengths is the mixture of dense and stripped-down arrangements, which temper what could have become a feeling of claustrophobia.

Many "classic" albums tend to have a real tour-de-force for a closing track, a bookend of real stamp.  "Buckets of Rain" scarcely qualifies as such, but its downbeat and ascetic pallor is strangely appropriate here.

In purely musical terms quite conservative, Blood On The Tracks nevertheless has a sincerity, directness and emotional punch which make it special.  In its own way, as substantial as anything produced by Bob Dylan.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

2013 Chinese Grand Prix

Today's Chinese Grand Prix gave further evidence of the capricious nature of modern Formula 1.  A comfortable victory in the end for Fernando Alonso and Ferrari, and much to muse on elsewhere in the field.

The extent of Alonso's superiority came as quite a surprise, and must be seen as persuasive evidence that the Italian team will be genuine contenders for the ultimate prizes this season.  In stark contrast to early 2012, they have hit the ground running this time around, with the reassurance that the Spaniard's talent and tactical resourcefulness remain undimmed. Team and driver are both up to speed, and this two-pronged challenge looks quite formidable.  At the same time Alonso, canny as ever, was quick to acknowledge that the current state of affairs cannot be taken for granted, and that the next race may present new variables to shake things up.

Mercedes continue to press, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that there are couple of small, but significant, pieces missing from their jigsaw.  That extra iota of race-pace, and total mechanical reliability, spring to mind.  Lewis Hamilton's cautionary pronouncements appear to have been borne out.  The team has moved more centre-stage, but there are still areas of weakness to rectify.

Whatever the flaws in the Mercedes situation, their position looks quite enviable in comparison to that of McLaren, who continue to look anaemic.  Today's strategy, although permitting some deceptive prominence at times, seemed tailored to getting a solid points finish on the board.  Jenson Button was philosophical after the Grand Prix, and he must also be conscious of having to shoulder the burden of leadership in the team, with Sergio Perez continuing to struggle.

A few other things are worthy of mention.  Kimi Raikkonen's pace was excellent after a stuttering beginning to the race, and it is this fleet form and relentless consistency which may ensure that the Finn remains in contention in the standings right until the end of the season.

Daniel Ricciardo was once again impressive in the Toro Rosso, and it may be that people will begin to cross-reference his assertive and confident performances with the difficulties afflicting a driver with a not totally unconnected team; a more senior Antipodean, whose future plans are the subject of renewed speculation.

A glance at the drivers' standings could be construed as quite revealing.  The four leading competitors - Vettel, Raikkonen, Alonso and Hamilton are threatening to detach themselves from the pack.  By most measures, this quartet constitutes the cream of the current Formula 1 driving talent.  The respective team-mates of these drivers are enduring various struggles and miseries.  Does this mean that more than in the recent past, F1 today places a premium on out-and-out driving skill?   I know that some observers see things in less straightforward terms, and the end of the season may be the time to formulate a more definitive assessment.

Three different victors in the opening three races.  Heartening, although this year will be hard pushed to match the statistics of 2012!

Farewell Summer - Ray Bradbury

Having read Ray Bradbury's wonderful Dandelion Wine, it seemed natural to check out what was in effect its sequel, Farewell Summer, the last of the author's novels published in his lifetime.

Farewell Summer, like its predecessor, is filled with evocative imagery, and employs the seasons as metaphors, but to me felt more concentrated, and less diffuse, than Dandelion Wine. 

The story, semi-autobiographical, is set in a small Illinois town in the late 1920s, and the foremost character is thirteen year old Douglas Spaulding.  This second novel features a "war", perhaps more aptly described as a battle of wills, between Doug and his friends on the one hand, and some of the local "elders", as personified by Calvin C. Quartermain.

The "young versus old" theme is carried over from Dandelion Wine, but in this sequel other concerns loom large.  Mortality, community and the transient nature of things. Rightly or wrongly, one of the strands which I picked up was the notion that our real struggle is not against other people, but within ourselves, how we deal with the advance of time and the choices and dilemmas which confront us.

Another interpretation which I put on the boys' campaign was a "maturing" and peaking of youthful imagination and idealism, about to collide with the onset of rationality and cynicism. For the time being however Douglas and company place excessive stall on symbols, failing to realise and grasp the unstoppable march of time and nature.  Is the message here that life is too short to worry unduly about things which we cannot change, and that we should embrace things as they are, and appreciate the good and beautiful therein?  Time waits for nobody, making no distinctions or concessions, but we have to harness it and cope with it.

The novel does end on quite a hopeful and conciliatory note, with both sides seeing beyond the squabble, partly due to extraneous factors and circumstance.  A rewarding read.

A link to my blog post about Dandelion Wine:   Dandelion Wine

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Dogs Of War - Frederick Forsyth

Having been mightily impressed and engrossed by two of Frederick Forsyth's novels, I opted to read the third of his most acclaimed works, The Dogs Of War.  

Basically, the novel tells the story of the discovery of platinum deposits in a fictional African republic, and the efforts of a British company to exploit this via a coup d'etat, to be undertaken on its behalf by mercenaries.  I had been conditioned to expect the bulk of the book to concentrate on the combat itself.  In the event, I discovered, to my pleasant surprise, that most of the pages are given over to an analysis of the mercenary's "art", how he organises, sustains and conceals himself, and how he relates to those who commission his services.  Only late on is the military operation itself reached, followed by the clever twist which concludes the story.

In common with other Forsyth works, The Dogs Of War interweaves fiction with real events.  It also benefits from what appears to be a combination of the author's knowledge of the subject (and related fields), and thorough research.

As mentioned above, most of the story is taken up by the elaborate preparations and precautions conducted by all concerned in the "plot".  As demonstrated in some of his other work, Forsyth is superbly adept at documenting these clandestine manoeuvrings, imbuing such normally mundane matters as airline tickets, hotel bookings and restaurant appointments with a sense of drama and tension. The paranoia and mutual distrust of those nominally on "the same side" is also evident, with a battle of wits raging, and all parties endeavouring to insulate themselves at every turn.

As the planning stages gather pace, we are given an insight into the murky world of the arms trade.  Details of financial and logistical issues inevitably become more complex around this stage.  However, it is not essential to absorb or grasp every individual detail in order to appreciate the growing suspense and tension.

Along the way, there is some reasonable character development, particularly surrounding the lead mercenary Shannon.  We gain some idea of his motivations and worldview.  Some of the other characters flirt very vaguely with  stereotypes, but never threaten to be caricatures.  Care is also taken to provide some plausible and rounded background on the fictional country of Zangaro.

Shrewdly, the author injects a few sub-plots, in particular the threat posed by Shannon's foes in the mercenary sphere, and the possible interest of the Soviet Union.  Both of these strands help to sustain the interest and curiosity of the reader, even though they do not prove as pivotal to the story as they initially promise to be.

As for the "twist" at the end, with Shannon thwarting the ambitions of his employers, this was well handled and deployed I thought.  The observant could pick up hints dropped at various stages, although Shannon's innermost thoughts and intentions are not explicitly revealed.

I suppose that there is some kind of "moral" in the story, albeit largely articulated by Shannon himself.  Those with malign intent often judge those who they hire entirely by their own standards, blithely assuming a total absence of scruples.

Another strong piece of writing.

Links to my other blog posts about Frederick Forsyth novels:

The Day Of The Jackal

The Odessa File

Friday, 5 April 2013

Legend - The Secret Life of Lee Harvey Oswald

Just recently, my interest in the John F Kennedy assassination was rekindled, and I realised that a book on the subject had been languishing on my bookshelf for some time, waiting to be read.  This was Legend - The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald, by Edward Jay Epstein.

I did not approach this book seeking another variation on the usual conspiracy theories, but rather as someone who felt dissatisfied with what appeared to be the amount of flimsy speculation out there concerning the assassination.  I was hoping that Epstein's book might offer a perspective different to some of the other material which I had been exposed to.

It has to be remembered that Legend was first published in the late 1970s.  Much more material, and multifarious theories, have emerged since then, but whether the investigation has "moved on" is a moot point. If anything, it could be argued the waters have simply become more muddied.

This book does not immerse itself in endless forensic analysis, but instead puts forward a plausible and persuasively argued view, which emerges almost organically, based on the outcome of research and interviews, and information already previously in the public domain. The examination of the extent of Oswald's connections with the KGB is particularly intriguing, as is the material concerning "the Cuban connection".  Much of the contents deal with Oswald's formative years, and periods in the US Marines and in the Soviet Union, rather than directly with the events in Dallas in November 1963.  All of this helps to create the big picture.

Legend reaches some tentative conclusions, but acknowledges that some questions remained unsolved at the time when it was written, with pieces of the jigsaw missing.  Many of those questions may still not have been satisfactorily resolved, even in 2013.

This whole topic undergoes a "rebirth" every few years, it seems, with a new "consensus" emerging, often based on spurious reasoning or wishful thinking.  Often this comes across as a case of over-complication for its own sake. This book, however, puts forth a believable and coherent set of arguments.  The whole truth may never be known....