Sunday, 20 March 2011


The Help” by Kathryn Stockett

People of my generation will remember seeing the horror that was South African apartheid on our TV screens as we grew up. We stood open mouthed when Mandela walked free. To our children it must be hard to believe that this ever happened. Likewise, a generation before all that, parts of the good old USA were just as bad as South Africa yet many of us have no memory of this and it's as if it's been air brushed from history.

'The Help' is set in Mississippi in the early sixties, a time and a place where racial discrimination and worse was rife. The civil rights movement was only just beginning in earnest and to many people this brought fear and hope in equal measure. The help' is how the well to do white society describe their black servants. There are three central characters, two black and one white and the story involves the unlikely friendship that builds between the three as they collaborate on a book.

Instead of focusing on the lynchings, murders and more dramatic events, the racism of that time is conveyed in the more 'every day' prejudices, attitudes and ignorance shown by the white 'gentry'. Simple things like segregated drinking fountains and toilets. When 'Skeeter' the white character visits Aibileen and Minnie her black friends she is not afraid of the black neighbourhood she drives into but she's constantly fearful of what the white community will do to her if she's found.

'The Help' is a great book which vividly paints the picture of the southern states in the sixties. The sights, sounds, heat and smells are easily visualised and it flows along easily. The fear and ignorance of the times are also very evident. There are times when the book is dark but there are times when it's very funny. It educates, it entertains and the reader will feel better for the experience.

Great read. Highly recommended.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Afghanistan has been a feature of our new reports for over thirty years, for all the wrong reasons. We've seen this county's gradual destruction and every time you think it cannot possibly get worse, it does. Hopefully the last decade has begun a turnaround in the fortunes of this country? Time will tell.

The Kite Runner is a book about Afghanistan, love, friendship, prejudice, betrayal and redemption. Kabul and the surrounding country is portrayed as a vibrant, civilised place, leaning towards the developing world yet still proud of its own culture and traditions which include 'Kite fighting'. By describing the splendour of Afghanistan at its height it makes the horrible spiral of destruction seem all the more terrible. The story is told through the eyes of a child Amir, and later through the eyes of the man he becomes. The other principle characters are his family,servants and neighbours.

Amir's own personal failings and troubles mirror those that befall his country, the tragedies are seen on a personal level and on a world wide scale. Amir and his father are forced to flee to America where they find safety but without their former wealth it's a humbling experience. However Amir has unfinished business and cannot be at peace until he has returned and faced the horror that his country has become under the Taliban. Here too the horror is on both a personal and national scale. At the end it's impossible to stop reading.

Every now and then, one reads a book that makes one feel a better person for doing so and this is one of those. Yes it has some very dark moments and challenging themes but it is brilliantly, beautifully written and ultimately totally uplifting. It's a book that you just eat up as you read, making you greedy for more. Just about every cliché in the book can be used to describe the 'Kite Runner' but if it doesn't move you then you are already dead.

Quite brilliant. If you only read one book all year then make sure it's this one.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Whales and a Wolf

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Bonfire of the vanities is a satire in which Tom Wolfe introduces the reader to a handful of quite dislikeable characters and then proceeds to throw their lives into turmoil. Set in the most affluent circles of New York in the late eighties it highlights all the selfish greed, and lack of morality that my own memory associates with that decade, (in fact a very similar decade to the one we have just left behind). In fact I think its fair to say that this book couldn't have been set in any other place but New York.

At the beginning of the story the protagonists mostly lead completely separate lives but fate sees their paths crossing. The central character is a Wall street hot shot living the life of virtual royalty in the highest social circles of New York. Other characters include Police, lawyers, religious leaders, writers and hustlers. As the story goes on the reader finds themselves liking some characters a little more but in general we like them a whole lot less as their worlds change forever. For some, life collapses around them, for others fate offers them a 'leg up'. All the protagonists would have done well to remember that “pride comes before a fall”.

As a comment on the nasty capitalist eighties I found this book worked but as a satire it failed to make me laugh. The fact that none of the central characters are the slightest bit endearing means the reader just doesn't care enough to keep turning those pages. Towards the end I was counting the pages and thinking 'how much longer is this going to drag on?'

Might appeal to some but not me.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

There can't be a single person alive who doesn't know that this book tells the story of Captain Ahab's quest to hunt down and kill the white Whale but how many people have ever read it? I have's bloody hard work!

I've heard 'Moby Dick' described as a classic and there is a great story in there that's for sure, but one has to wade through pages and pages describing the technical details of seamanship and killing Whales. This may be of interest to some but not me. In my opinion (which is worth precisely sweet FA), Moby Dick would have benefited from a good healthy edit, remove Melville's semi-auto biographical nautical crap and just stick to the story of a man's obsession with catching a very large sea creature. As a lifelong angler I can certainly relate to that.

Moby Dick has a great story in there, without a doubt but all the other stuff spoils it. Whenever I think of 'Ahab' I see Gregory Peck from the classic film in my minds eye. It's a very good film.

For once, ignore the book and stick to the film.