Remember when politics was motivated by hope and empathy? I challenge anyone, even the most hardened Republicans, to not feel a pang of loss when reading this fabulous book.
Obama received 10,000 letters a day. Having earned the reputation for corresponding personally wherever possible whilst on the campaign trail, Americans wanted to write to Barack Obama. They wanted him to know their story. They felt he would want to know. They were right.
Obama assembled a dedicated and committed team to sift this volume down to the 10 he would take home to read every single day. This team of staff and interns would settle on the 10 as the letters were categorised and sampled through the hierarchy of the mail office.
Laskas’ book contains many, many of these letters, reproduced in the form in which they arrived, and also the replies they received from Obama himself. My tired eyes took a while on some of the smaller print but it is well worth the effort.
The 10lads (letters of the day), as they became known were intended to give a flavour, a refelection of the mood of America. Ranging from simple thank you notes to heart rending pleas from desperate veterans, victims of the economic crisis that marked the early Obama years, migrants and so minorities.
I finished this book as the current incumbent is shouting at anyone daring to question his increasingly worrying moves to bypass democracy. On folding the beautiful, simple, hardback cover closed, I was too emotional to speak. The passage describing the mood in the mail room team (“team little people” as they referred to themselves) after election night 2016 is numbing and humbling.
To Obama isn’t just about the letters though. There are chapters devoted to a selection of those who received replies. A window into America through the eyes and words of the people that live there.
And then there’s the staff, the interns, people that grew up with the Obama years. The tales of having to walk away from letters, letters pinned to walls (including the President’s), letters being walked around and around the building.
An operation which deals with pushing 4 million pieces of correspondence a year is delicately crafted into a tale of people through the guile and sensitivity of Laskas.
As Barack Obama put it himself:
“It was a way for me to, every day, remember that what I was doing was not about me, it wasn’t about the Washington calculus … It was about the people who were out there living their lives, who were either looking for some help or angry about how I was screwing something up.”
I received this book as a gift from my wonderful wife – go and buy it for someone you love too x
This incredible book has been devoured. You know a book has you when you are drying yourself after a shower one handed in order to grab a quick page. At emotionally vulnerable times it could easily have felt corny to seize on a book with a torrid, heart breaking tale, put your favourite sad songs on repeat simply weep.
This book, though, about a journey on our very own South West Coast Path, told by Raynor Winn, but also about the incredible journey of a time in life with her beloved husband Moth, hits that sweet spot emotionally. Stomach twistingly heart breaking, yet so beautiful it paints rainbows across your tears. Winn crafts this deeply personal, brutally honest wander through the roughest tracks of life with such poise, it seems outrageous to think she hasn’t been previously published.
Thrown into the void of life after being evicted from their home, their life’s work gone, the follow up punch comes instantly when Moth is given a terminal diagnosis. What to do? They head for Minehead.
And from there, learning the errors of their preparation, or lack of it, as they go, they set off for Lands End (and beyond?) on foot. Camping wild and surviving on £40 a week, their wits, their humour and the spark they’ve carried together through their entire adult lives, they battle on.
Progress can be slow, painful or simply non-existent and Winn describes, sometimes agonisingly, often hilariously, the people they meet, the towns and villages they pass through, or linger in, and their encounters with the elements.
So life size is the narration, I found myself smelling their clothes, feeling the drying of their skin, hearing the sounds of the Atlantic, the call of the sea birds and shifting uncomfortably with the book as she describes some of the ground they slept on.
I can’t pretend that the books proximity to home (both in geography, emotion and ambition) doesn’t add an extra personality to its appeal to me personally, but please, please believe me, it is a wonderful thing.
Winn echos the message so delicately reinforced by my very own wondrous adventurer, soul mate and partner for life in reassuring me that hope is actually a GOOD thing. Why not hope, dream, dare or just ****ing DO IT!
If you want your spirits lifted, your emotions exposed, your adventurous bones ignited then this is surely the book for you. It has already become one of our most treasured possessions.
Check out what else I’ve read so far this year HERE.
Regular readers (should there still be any!?), will know that Alison Kennedy is one of my favourite ever authors. I was sure to delve into this rather hefty novel on the front foot, although rest assured if I hadn’t loved it, I wouldn’t be writing about it now.
Nicky (my rather splendid, completely beautiful and awe inspiring lady wife) always claims I have a leaning towards, as she says, ‘high brow’ books. I think the industry calls it ‘literary fiction’, although I couldn’t give a shit what it’s called, I either enjoy a book or I don’t. And, Nicky, i do believe you’re currently reading the vintage autobiographical novel, Heartburn, by Nora Ephron. High brow indeed!
This heartbreaking, yet heart warming, tale is told without any suggestion of formula. The prose combines a personal third person narration with soul searching internal dialogue. And the same method is applied to both the main characters.
Powerful it is. Floyd’s ‘Two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl’ lyric would surely be on the soundtrack to the movie this book DEMANDS to be made into.
A flawed love story of flawed love as our two main characters battle their way through 24 London hours. There’s a darkness to Jon and Meg, our hopes for them never soar too ambitiously as we fear for their fate. Jon, in late middle age, working within the inner reaches of the civil service and privy to the hideous secrets that come with that, finds a unusual outlet for his feelings and emotions. Meg, a recovering alcoholic and bankrupt accountant, lost and alone in a crowded city, takes the bait and seeks refuge in Jon’s words.
Will destiny allow this unlikely pair to find romance? Told by the two protagonists in short bursts, the day starts and finishes in darkness, but will there be light?
The attention to detail, the imagery, the complex plot and history, together with the deeply personal voices make this a compelling read. It has to be read, there’s no room for skimming or presumption. Falling asleep with this book in my hands was always a frustration, I would grab it on awaking and even read a page whilst the kettle boiled for morning coffee.
Not a small book and it demands the readers’ involvement, but boy it’s good.
I don’t know if at any point I consciously set out to believe in myself, to believe myself to be a writer. But with each baby step I am delving a tad deeper into the world of ‘us’ writers. That took some time, to get myself to admit that, hell Kevin, you write…. You are a writer!
Talking of belief. I may be the trumpet blowing, flag waving, bag carrying, shouting believer in my beautiful wife’s amazing challenges and adventures (check out my blog of her amazing 70.3 triathlon HERE), but she is more circumspect in her support. A simple text message, whilst I was at work this week, said “you CAN do it” about my writing. Sometimes it’s not grand speeches that are needed, it’s simply genuine belief. Not only that but I came home to a beautiful new notebook as a surprise present too. Anybody else who writes will know what a great and inspiring surprise that is.
Another day this week I came home to a gingerbread man. Mmm mmmm
Yup. My wife is ace ❤️
Well, here I am, writing. And how I’ve embraced the pen and keyboard this week. My membership of Writers’ HQ is up and running, giving me access to all of their fabulous courses, their members only online groups and a world of motivation and drive.
Poor Nicky was exhausted when she asked “What are you writing?” “Well,” I enthused “Writers HQ suggested I take an every day situation and then come up with five ways of interpreting them, then find the best one and then find the character within that and and and and and……..” and, and, and on I went! Childish excitement? Damn right.
So, my novel is back on track, a poetry theme in my head has started forming on paper, I’ve got two firm short story ideas already being fleshed out and a piece of flash fiction I’m rather proud of.
So, whilst Nicky is delicately picking out some Beethoven, devouring some Ross Raisin, performing miracles with the jigsaw and plotting her next set of fantastic challenges (including the BIG one…. watch this space), I’m writing, reading, writing and reading.
Whilst I was enjoying reading some blogs and social media posts from the more independent side of the writing and publishing world, I came across a Twitter campaign started by Salt Publishing (#justonebook) who were in need of a financial lift. It had a tremendous response and a quick glance through their titles soon had me ordering Two Sketches Of Disjointed Happiness by Simon Kinch.
What an absolute treat. It arrived within a week with a lovely hand written post card.
Two Sketches Of Disjointed Happiness is a debut novel by Kinch, a Spanish resident hailing from the UK. The book promised an experimental feel, an exploration of choices and consequences, of reflection and regret.
It doesn’t disappoint. Within a page I found myself hurriedly devouring the words, so many questions to be answered by the next page, and the next and the next. I started the (admittedly shortish) offering immediately upon opening and finished it the following lunchtime.
A young man, Granville, an American travelling in Europe, receives a message as he prepares for the final legs of his journey home. The mystery of the message’s detail is never truly revealed, but this news and Granville’s subsequent actions, combined with a piece of misfortune, leave him pondering a massive decision. To reverse his direction and choose a Spanish destination or to plough on towards his flight home.
I turned page after page, absolutely engrossed as one choice was apparently taken over the other. A study of young adult, of isolation, of timid suggestions of romance, all with the heavy weight of the relationship back home hanging over the story.
A gradual introduction of the imagined consequence of taking the other direction slowly blurs the boundaries between truth and hypothesis. This blurring left me, the reader, reeling, grasping to make to make my own choice as to which reality to believe.
The attempted romances are so delicate and nervous, I almost cringed for Granville. As with the direction he might have chosen, the reader gets to decide if he is shy, timidly coy and sensitive or maybe aloof and a little arrogant with little regard for the consequence for others of his actions.
I don’t wish to spoil the book for anybody wishing to tackle it but I do, thoroughly recommend it. With advice coming my way to read, read and read some more, to expand my reading net, to step out of my comfort zone, I feel Simon Kinch has handed me a gift. A book which dissolves into the reader’s mind is a prized possession and Two Sketches is firmly in that category for me….
I had just finished On Writing by Stephen King when Kinch’s cracking debut arrived. I have a very treasured possession, also entitled On Writing by AL Kennedy, a beautiful study of the craft of the pen. King’s book is more ‘manly’, more raaaahhhh if you like, but no less inspiring for it. It shames me to admit that I’ve never read a single novel of his, something I shall be correcting in the very near future.
All of this reading has me itching to grab the pen. Nicky, as she embarks on her piano journey, is finding that she hears music differently now, appreciating more of the subtleties, just as I now do with my reading.
Running – feeling good and enjoyed a terrific Parkrun battle with my visiting brother last weekend, just squeezing in front of him as we both snuck under 20 minutes.
Then on Sunday I embarked on an epic (well it felt epic!) 23 mile off road trek, taking in lots of beautiful countryside and coastline (Check it out HERE). We truly are lucky to have this wonderful coastline to go and play on so close to home, and it is perfect training for the upcoming Plague (which is 64 miles long and starts at midnight), Nicky and I have completed the 32 mile Black Rat version in each of the last three years and it really is my favourite ever event.
Nicky spent all 32 miles last year telling anybody who’d listen, and everybody else in fact, that this was her last EVER ultra marathon.
What’s she doing this year, I hear you ask, yup, you’ve guessed it, the 32 mile Black Rat. It is a complete sell out again (there are 4 distances on offer), read about last year’s shenanigans HERE.
After three wonderful, exhilarating, life affirming years of marriage to Nicky, my world, my reason, my soul mate, I find myself reflecting on just why she has transformed my life, my whole being.
There are reasons by the bucket load.
Just one example: Books. At various times during my life I’ve been a keen reader. But, it has taken sharing a space with someone who KNOWS how to live in the pages of whatever is in your hands, someone who isn’t afraid to say “I can’t wait to get back to my book”, someone who will happily share two hours in a book shop.
One of our most prized possessions is our Waterstones loyalty card, eagerly watching the stamping at the till as we approach yet another £10 discount.
Wonderfully, also, we don’t do genres, we aren’t confined to fiction or non-fiction. Believe it or not we don’t just read about running, cycling and swimming!
As our ‘to be read’ pile starts to diminish we both start mentally preparing our justifications to unleash another armful of tomes onto the counter on our next pilgrimage.
Books. Yup. We like them.
Anyway, I’m waffling……
I’ve finished a couple of books in the last two weeks, and as I declared on ‘the other blog’ I intend to only write reviews of those I’ve thourougly enjoyed.
I picked up White Tears by Hari Kunzru after having seen off a more standard thriller Don’t Let Go by Michel Bussi. Bussi’s latest work was a great, pacey, page turning who-dunnit-and-why thriller. Enjoyable but perhaps I was ready for something which challenged me further, explored a bit of me.
Well White Tears has certainly done that. A tale of friendship, of hurt, of obsession of darkness which explores its characters to their core.
The geeky lad, playing with technology, exploring sound, forms an unlikely alliance with the cool student. Popular and confident, from an extraordinarily wealthy family, Carter sees Seth to be the curve that closes the circle of his craving.
Carter collects and is absorbed by old blues and rare black music, chasing those rare catalogue numbers on fragile 78s.
Seth’s gathering of obscure sounds using his own obscure technological creations, combined with the scratchy tones of obscure blues recordings becomes an art form in itself.
A chance collision of old and new from their increasingly fractious teamwork sends both their worlds into chaos.
And the story too.
As tragedy and mayhem crowd in on him, Seth’s life becomes a search for the reason behind the cursed recording.
Hooking up with old blues collectors, Carter’s sister, crazy chess players and the characters living in the home of the poor man’s blues, in the deep south.
It is a tale of a young man barely clinging to sanity, told in an increasingly anxious tone as Kunzru dares the reader to turn each page.
Tragedies of old play throughout the challenge of today as Seth is increasingly sucked into the characters behind the torture that created the ‘cursed’ recording.
An exploration into the extremities of the power of music, its role in racial divisions, class conflict and the souls of us all, White Tears is a broken record of a tortured tale. I read it in less than a week, fighting sleep in my urgency to go with Seth to the next town, the next chapter.
Wonderfully following no formula or fitting with any agenda or genre, I would unreservedly recommend it. I do think it will polarise, like Marmite, but I do love a bit of Marmite…….
I’ve read a couple of translated books recently. Having elected to only review books that have given me pleasure, I’m only mentioning one of them here. Quite possibly my problem with the other one is actually, well, MY problem, and not the book’s.
So that leaves us with this, Diary Of A Body. Written as a diary over the life span of French author, Daniel Pennac, and translated into an adorable, quirky, compelling English language read by Alyson Waters.
The unusual cover, the teasing title, the little English Pen Award sticker, they all contributed to me thinking “mmmm?” as my hand tentatively slid the lightweight paperback from the shelf. (We took several books on holiday, between my wonderful wife and I, only one of us took a hearty hard back……that suitcase was slightly overweight.)
I was right to take a chance. Pennac was a French author who kept an occasional, rather quirky diary. Having been humiliated, by his own mother, in front of a mirror as a child, he set about charting his body’s sensations. Tearing a muscular – skeletal diagram from an encyclopaedia, he pinned this ‘perfect’ physique next to the offending mirror. A quest to attain similar had begun.
Told with a light touch, but exhibiting cringe worthy honesty, the book delivers a friend. Through adolescence, all those moments we never discuss, are, erm, DISCUSSED – yes there’s not a lot left to the imagination as Pennac narrates his body being dumped into adulthood.
Pennac left instructions for his daughter, who only became aware of the diary’s existence upon the death of her father, to do with the documents as she saw fit.
That these posthumous communications are included here only adds to the homely feel of the overall prose. There are gaps (mostly due to active resistance servitude) but somehow, they feel to be correctly placed.
Into retirement, and beyond to old age, frailty and terminal illness, there can only ever be one outcome. Taken right up to his dying days, it would be a truly cold heart that didn’t openly weep (both with sadness and joy) as the last few, bleary eyed pages are softly consumed.
So, if you’re looking for a not-too-hefty, genre defying, heartfelt, cosy read and want to, like Idid, delve a little deeper into the literary world, this could well be for you.
Don’t forget, I’ve got other writings over at the OTHER BLOG (when time has permitted). If anybody would like to keep in more regular touch, they can in the comments box here, via firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and by waving to me enthusiastically in the street.
I’m always looking for opportunities to write, and have a regular column in the lovely online running magazine RUN DEEP.
Right, I’m publishing this at 7.15pm on Christmas Eve…… I’m not expecting a massive readership but to those who are reading it ‘live’…. MERRY CHRISTMAS
Sat not three feet from the gently rippling Caribbean sea, I turned the last of the 415 pages of Preparation For The Next Life by Atticus Lish. As a few beads of sweat from the wonderful, sweltering heat dripped onto the cover as I gazed at it in awe, I’m sure there was a tear or two amongst it. I would never quite be the same again. Heart-warming, heart-wrenching, heart-breaking, this brutal modern romance consumed me, amazed me, horrified me and illuminated me.
Desperate for more, yet exhausted from having my emotion squeezed to the end.
Set in post Iraq war New York, an unlikely couple emerge from the wreckage of their lives. Zou Lei is a Muslim illegal immigrant from the east, sucked into, spat out from, hidden from, persecuted by and constantly in fear of the authorities. Brad Skinner is a veteran of three active tours of Iraq and has been physically, emotionally and psychologically butchered in his few adult years to date.
A chance encounter in the maze of New York’s mess of an underground world, where a hidden (mostly illegal) immigrant community lives in a desperate economy all of its own, leads to comparing of muscles and rare laughter.
Zou Lei’s strength is her work ethic and single minded determination to make the most of her, apparently destitute, existence. Brad hitch-hikes into town, with the remainder of his forces pay out withering in his bank.
They, with their ragged clothes and lives, somehow find their souls alive.
His desperation, her devotion, their private battles, their joint journey and the unlikely chaotic romance which ensues are dealt with in a style who’s prose is honest, clipped and, like the characters, on the verge of breaking. It’s like having a window into this couple’s world through filthy and cracked glass.
Commentators, far more informed than I, have suggested that this tale of how the hopes of the hopeless are crushed by the inequality and heartlessness of a fast and selfish world is important in its belief that these tales need to be told. Fiction it may be, shockingly real it definitely is.
You’ll get no plot spoilers from me, but if you’re looking for a twee love story I’d perhaps recommend you avert you eyes.
It is a rare thing for a book to bring tears to my eyes, yet on this wonderful holiday we have just enjoyed, two books have managed to achieve just that. (Expect a review of the other soon)
Autumn is about 3/4 of the way through the year. Whilst the brightest and longest days of the year may be behind us, we’re right in the middle of the BEST days.
The best colours, the best shadows, sunrises, sunsets. Fast changing weather and the challenges of wintry conditions start showing their faces.
(Appallingly cliched analagy alert) A bit like my life. Whilst being young was great, the first couple of decades of adulthood were full of, you know, STUFF. So, my bright, silky skinned, jet black barnet days are long behind me.
Because THIS, this is the life I’ve been waiting for……
Utopia. Pure and simple.
I guess one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia.
Clean. Healthy. Loving. Truthful.
What on earth has this all got to do with a book review?
Well, here I am on the injury bench, Charlie for company, feeling all, er, all wordy……
Yet another holiday read. The main protagonist, Reg (and his dog Linekar) have ended up living in a post-apocolyptic dystopia. Only that’s not how it feels to them.
One man’s…… oh I’ve said that.
I see, going off subject a bit here, that White Star’s Andy Palmer wrote another piece for The Guardian. Nice. Run Deep Magazine got a plug too. I’ve got a column in Run Deep. Tenuous link to fame there…..
Interesting that people I follow in the media and sporting world tend NOT to be columnists for The Daily Mail (no link inserted there, naturally).
By way of example, Kate Carter, Adharanand Finnish, Rob Deering…… and, er, Andy Palmer!
Anyway, one man’s dystopia…..
So, THE LAST DOG ON EARTH
On a the face of it, a quirky, light hearted romp, told through the voice of a foul-mouthed mutt, around a make believe world where barely anyone has survived a civil war led apocalypse.
Linekar (the dog) and Reg (his owner) have remained in London, creating their own power and scavenging for food. Living a simple, simple existence in isolation. Dependent on each other for company and the routine they both enjoy.
The sparse pattern of lights that remain on view are the only suggestion that a hint of life in the city goes on. There are barely enough (of these lights) for a football team (which is sort of the point), and we learn that gruesome deaths and a hurried exodus has accounted for nearly all of the city’s population.
Gradually, we encounter those that rule the deserted streets and others who have remained. Belief doesn’t have to be suspended too much.
The rhetoric and undercurrent of hatred which we seem to have cultivated in Britain is enough for me to join the dots from today’s realities to Walker’s imagined future. Scary.
It’s a fabulous, moody yet pacey, look at relationships, at how we interact and, yes, how our dogs become part of our personality (as well as suggesting what THEY might be thinking).
Reg and Linekar have their crude but effective existence blown apart after a mission to find fuel for their generator.
Inadvertently, and unwillingly, they become guardians to a lost child.
Their journey, their bonds, their fights and fears as they venture further out into the world now run by extremists, are all grippingly delivered.
With echoes of one of my favourite ever books, Station 11, this band of misfits grows, makes allies, encounters relics from the past (everyday life items which we don’t even notice).
The battle to avoid the ultimate test to determine whether they still have a use in the world (I’m avoiding too many spoilers) is terrifying, absorbing and quite humbling.
A book which tackles extremists controlling the future, mass murder, the destruction of what we call ‘civilization’ and yet can open a chapter with the line “Squirrels are c***s” is a rare trick I reckon.
From this book, I look closer at the things that frighten me in the world more and more, perhaps ask myself questions, and definitely look at Charlie and wonder what HE’S thinking!
For some reason I’ve been devouring books of late, there’s been some real page turners, some inspirational factual volumes – Dean Karnazes’ The Road To Sparta was a good read (see this BLOG), and so was the incredible Clem Attlee biography by John Bew (again, see this BLOG).
Also whizzed through whilst we were doing SWEET F ALL in Kefalonia the other week, was Slade House by David Mitchell. Now, I’m not normally your fantasy, nor horror, fiction type of guy, but for some reason, this relatively small paperback ended up on the credit card with I dread to think how many other books on our last Waterstones binge.
I know nothing of Mitchell, nor, indeed the genre, but what a quirky, mind altering, (VERY) darkly humorous tale it is. Elements of more simple ‘scary’ stories from childhood combine with quite disturbing blackness of hidden alleys, gates and stolen souls.
There is a pace and cruel wit to the exploration of the characters’ personalities and how the ‘victims’ are chosen.
The villains, if indeed that is what they are, are comedic in their evil ways, and their increasingly desperate methods of enticing are almost Laurel and Hardy, whilst being as sinister as Burke and Hare. Quite a trick.
The house, set secretly and classically behind a tiny gate in a dark high walled alley, holds the secrets and the spirits of the past. Its occupants need to feed on the right type of soul to fuel their otherworldly existence, inevitably based around a spooky loft.
It’s full of wonderful clichés countered by twisted contradictions.
The cyclical need for sacrifice culminates with a Halloween party where the guests get more than they bargained for. Well one of them does, for the others…….. (avoiding too much spoiler there)
It might make you think twice about that enticing alley on your next run, but it will definitely up the heart rate and turn the page.
It took me out of my comfort zone, and off the sun lounger, to a bizarre, only slightly unbelievable world. And I fairly rattled through it.
I have many influences in my reading and writing, one of my favourite writers, and motivational characters is AL KENNEDY and, she has, perhaps unwittingly, done as much as anyone to encourage my writing ambitions……..
“Have more humility. Remember you don’t know the limits of your own abilities. Successful or not, if you keep pushing beyond yourself, you will enrich your own life – and maybe even please a few strangers.” A.L. KENNEDY